For the longest time I had never stopped to read the historical plaque in downtown Toronto I passed by almost daily on my way from my home to the gym.
Then one day several years ago I finally did.
I’d never before heard of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who escaped as slaves from Kentucky in 1831 and, after a dramatic turn of events, eventually made their way up to Canada via the Underground Railway.
The Michigan governor put in an extradition request to have Thornton Blackburn returned, but the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada refused to comply.
Blackburn first worked as a waiter until becoming an entrepreneur, creating Toronto’s first successful taxicab company. The Blackburns spent the rest of their lives working on community projects, building a local church and opposing slavery.
That’s just the summary, there’s a lot more to it than and it’s a remarkable story, one that I think should be recognized by more than just a plaque that’s easily missed by passersby.
If a local politician or group of community members sought to name a new street or park or other site in Toronto after the Blackburns, it would be something worth supporting.
While there’s been a lot of talk recently about re-naming streets and buildings, mostly in the United States but also in Canada and Great Britain, I didn’t immediately think about the Blackburns.
That’s probably because the renaming conversation has mostly focused not on those individuals who deserve to be honoured and their accomplishments, but on the names we’re told need to be torn down.
The conversation could be a lot more productive and positive if we simply switched that around. Instead of focusing on a person to tear down, let’s focus on a person to celebrate.
A lot of the renaming controversies don’t even seem to go anywhere. Take the calls to re-name Dundas Street, a major corridor in downtown Toronto.
Practically no one walking down the street, exiting at Dundas subway station or visiting Yonge-Dundas Square would know that the name comes from Henry Dundas, an 18th century British politician, whose wrongdoing that activists have seized upon is that he was against slavery but voted for it to be eliminated gradually over a few years as opposed to immediately.
Out of those who do know (or who have just learned recently), how many would agree we should take on the cost, time and effort to rename not just the public spaces but the aspects of various businesses that use the name in part in their signage, advertising and other operations? Given all of these logistics, it’s hard to see this campaign succeeding.
In Montreal there have been calls to rename the Lionel-Groulx Metro station. This campaign has been a little different though. Instead of focusing on re-litigating the past of Groulx, a Roman Catholic priest who died in 1967, they’ve focused on who they want it named after: legendary jazz musician Oscar Peterson, who grew up in the neighbourhood.
It looks like the station won’t be renamed, but that doesn’t mean something new can’t be named after Peterson. While the pianist has already been honoured many times — including a vibrant statue in Ottawa in front of the National Arts Centre that tourists get their pictures taken with — there’s always room for one more when it comes to recognizing the talent behind Canadiana Suite and Night Train.
While the renaming controversies haven’t exactly brought people together, who can argue with celebrating successful and accomplished people who were admired by many?
Instead of finding a relatively obscure person from a long time ago to tear down because they don’t live up to today’s standards, why don’t we focus on honouring more great black Canadians, both the recently deceased and still living? There are many names to choose from and new streets and parks being christened every year.
While we’re at it, maybe we can also do more to tell the incredible story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn.