Riot of 1833
In 1831, Thornton Blackburn and his wife Lucie, slaves from Louisville, Kentucky, ran away from their slave master and relocated to Detroit. For more than two years Thornton and Lucie were well-liked and working as part of the Detroit community. In the summer of 1833, the Blackburns were arrested and placed in jail for violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1783 by their former slave master who found them. They were to be charged as fugitives from labor. After a trial by Justice Chipman, the Blackburns were turned over to Sheriff John M. Wilson and lodged in the jail. On a Sunday, Lucie was visited by two of her friends, Mrs. Madison Lightfoot and Mrs. George French at the jail. During the visit Lucie exchanged clothes with Mrs. French and was taken in this disguise across the Detroit River into Amherstburg, Ontario. Mrs. French was eventually released and then re-arrested for aiding Lucie before fleeing to Canada as well with her husband.
The next morning, Thornton was rescued by a mob of both black and white Detroiters. A fight ensued and one of the rescuers was shot, while the sheriff suffered a fractured skull and some teeth. Thornton was given a gun at some point and locked himself inside of a coach – refusing to get out and threatening to kill anyone who tried to return him to slavery. In the confusion, he managed to slip out of the coach. As the fighting continued and turned into a riot, soldiers were called and every black man and woman found on the street were arrested and jailed. This became the first race riot in Detroit. Eventually, some innocent people were released, while others had to either pay a fine or were forced to work, ball and chained on road repairs. Those that were considered the instigators were fined and forced to work. Ironically, it was Mrs. Lightfoot who was fined $25 for being the “prime mover in the riot” and her husband jailed for slipping the gun to Thornton.
The Blackburns were later arrested in Canada. The Blackburns’ former slave master and the United States government demanded they be brought back to the United States. The Canadian government refused and released the Blackburns. Allegedly, 10 years later, Thornton 10, in disguise, went back to Louisville and rescued his mother from slavery. The Blackburns later moved to Toronto and established a taxi service before becoming wealthy and donating land for a school.
Riot of 1863
On March 6, 1863, as the Civil War raged on, a second race riot occurred in Detroit. William Faulkner, a black man, on February 16, 1863, was accused of raping nine-year old Mary Brown. According to the alleged victim, who was white, on that day she was walking to the Post Office when she was approached by a young black girl, Ellen Hoover. The two began talking and decided to stop in a nearby saloon owned by Faulkner to warm their feet and get something to eat. While they were there, Mary alleged Faulkner approached Ellen and lured her into a private room. After a while, Ellen and Faulkner exited the room and tried to get Mary to go into the same room with Faulkner. When she refused, Mary stated Ellen grabbed her and forced her into the room with Faulkner where he did what the Detroit Free Press described as “diabolical” acts. The paper went on to say, “But the evidence of his guilt upon the lacerated person of his victim is stronger than the oaths of ten thousand negroes, even if he had witnesses to testify to his innocence.” The Detroit Free Press frequently ran negative articles accusing blacks of causing various problems that mainly impacted the city’s working-class whites. The newspaper pushed the notion that freed blacks leaving the South would take jobs from white men. These stories coupled with the resentment from whites concerning the Civil War contributed to racial tension in the city.
Faulkner denied raping Mary (and later Ellen when she accused him of the same crime). In his version of events, he on two occasions had to run Mary away from the saloon. During Faulkner’s trail as he was led from the jail to court and back, he was pelted with stones thrown by angry whites. On March 6, 1863, when he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, a large mob once again attacked him on his way to jail. The men assigned to keep order, the Detroit Provost Guard, tried to disperse the crowd, but at some point they shot blindly into the crowd. As a result, a German man, who was watching the events unfold, was fatally injured. The increasingly angry white mob then began attacking and mercilessly beating any black Detroiter they came upon. As their attacks escalated, they began to set occupied black owned businesses on fire. When it was all done, the white mob burned about 30 buildings, caused thousands of dollars in damages, killed one black man by hitting him in the head with an ax, injured dozens more, and at least 200 black residents were homeless.
Seven years later, both Mary and Ellen recanted their stories and Faulkner was pardoned on December 31, 1869. Upon his release, some Detroit citizens donated money to open him a stand in the community’s market. Seven years after that, he died.