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Good morning, it’s Monday, June 17, 2019. On this date in 1833, a Detroit mob took the law into its own hands. A sheriff died in the process and unease reverberated throughout the Michigan territory. But the mob was on the right side of justice, as I’ll explain in a moment.

First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

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Why Govt.-Funded Health Insurance Is Vital to Free Market’s Survival. Labor mobility is crucial to a robust marketplace, Allan Golombek argues, but employees are often reluctant to change jobs or start a new business for fear of losing health coverage.

Acosta Is His Own Worst “Enemy.” Frank Miele writes that the CNN White House correspondent is practicing more journalistic sleight of hand in his new book.

All the Democrats’ Men (Plus Nancy). I donned my satirist hat for this playlet.

In N.C., Hog Farming’s as American as Chinese Food. In RealClearInvestigations, Steve Miller spotlights China’s growing control of the U.S. pork industry.

Tillis-Coons Bill Would Enable Big Pharma’s Patent Abuse. Matthew Lane explains in RealClearHealth.

Why Traditional Higher Ed Isn’t Dead Yet. In RealClearEducation, Paul Freedman reports on institutions poised to disrupt the disruptors.

An Illegitimate Election in South Ossetia. In RealClearWorld, Alexis Mrachek offers evidence of Russia continuing to meddle in Georgia’s affairs.

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With its easy proximity to Canada, Detroit was a popular Underground Railroad terminus, and in 1831 a determined slave couple from Kentucky ended up there. Thornton and Rutha Blackburn liked what they saw in Detroit and decided to stay. Two years later they were tracked to the city by a Kentucky “slave hunter,” however, and arrested.

Slavery was not allowed in the young nation’s northwest territories, but contentious judicial decisions in local courts allowed for the extradition of runaway slaves to their original jurisdictions. This time, however, the free blacks of Detroit decided they’d had enough.

In a dramatic scenario that sounds like it sprung from the imagination of Quentin Tarantino, two black women named Tabitha Lightfoot and Caroline French visited Mrs. Blackburn in the jail. While there, Mrs. French changed clothes with Mrs. Blackburn, who then left the jail as though she were one of the visitors. Friends then whisked her to Toronto before the authorities learned of the ruse.

Upon discovering the switcheroo, a local sheriff named John M. Wilson warned that he would send Caroline French back to Kentucky in Rutha Blackburn’s place. This threat enraged the black community in Detroit, and on this date 1833, an armed crowd gathered in front of the jail where Thornton Blackburn was still being held. The prisoner persuaded a deputy to let him to talk to the mob -- ostensibly to calm things down -- but when Thornton went outside, someone slipped him a pistol, and all hell broke loose.

In the ensuing melee Sheriff Wilson was beaten and fatally shot and Blackburn escaped. A mile out of town, a posse caught the carriage that had carried him to safety, but he had already slipped away. With the help of friends, Thornton was making his way to freedom on the other side of the Canadian border.

The mess they left behind lit a fuse. Riots broke out that summer in the city, leading to martial law and onerous restrictions on blacks, many of whom emigrated to Canada. But that wasn’t all. Detroit’s first anti-slavery society was organized a year later, and by 1837, Michigan was admitted to the union as a free state.

In the Civil War, nearly 15,000 Michiganders would die while fighting to preserve the Union and end slavery.

Meanwhile, Rutha and Thornton set down roots in Canada and prospered. She changed her named to Lucie; he got a job as a waiter in the dining room at Osgoode Hall, which still stands. Later, they started a livery cab company that did so well they were eventually able to retire. They supported abolition and were active in helping other freed blacks, and both lived into the 1890s.

According to historian Karolyn Smardz Frost, who wrote a book about the couple, Thornton Blackburn returned to Kentucky in the 1840s and pulled off a daring rescue of his mother. This incident was not reported at the time, and although it sounds improbable, truth can be more amazing than fiction. At the family cemetery in Toronto there are three gravestones. The third reads “Libby Blackburn,” who was 80 when she died in 1855. 

Carl M. Cannon  
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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