restricted access 8. John P. Parker and the Underground Railroad
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8 OME TWENTY years after the Civil War ended, John P. Parker, a prosperous manufacturer and inventor of Ripley, Ohio, agreed to talk with a newspaper reporter about a part of his prewar life that, at the time, he had been at pains to hide from public view. He finally admitted that between 1845 and 1861 he had helped perhaps as many as 440 slaves escape from the South—he had lost track of just how many. Like most Underground Railroad operatives, Parker had been careful to leave no incriminating paper trail. He had kept a detailed record of the slaves he helped, but he soon realized that this was a dangerous practice. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 imposed harsh penalties for aiding slave escapes, such concealment became essential. Parker then retrieved his account book from its hiding place and burned it in the furnace of his iron foundry. Thus was lost the written record that would have documented the illegal and dangerous activity he finally confessed to have engaged in for so many years: assisting fugitives make their way to freedom, often venturing into Kentucky itself, mostly at night, in order to lead slaves back across the river into Ohio. Parker must have been aware at every moment that he risked especially harsh punishment for his actions, for he was an African American and had himself once been a slave. Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1827. His father, he had been told, was “one of the aristocrats of Virginia;” his mother was a slave and, thus, he was a slave too. At the age of eight, he was sold at Richmond and attached to a slave coffle that walked from Virginia to its destination in Alabama. In recounting his experience in bondage, Parker had little to say about the harrowing cruelties and indignities that darken so many 95 John P. Parker and the Underground Railroad MERTON L. DILLON S  vantne_3rd_chap8.qxd 11/4/2003 11:52 AM Page 95 96 BUILDERS OF OHIO slave narratives. “I know slavery’s curse was not the pain of the body, but the pain of the soul,” was his summation of the burden of his early life. Perhaps he even would have agreed that on the whole his lot had been a fortunate one. The white companions of his childhood taught him to read, and his owner, a Mobile physician, treated him kindly and when he reached the appropriate age encouraged him to develop a skilled trade by apprenticing him, first to a plasterer and then to an iron molder. Upon his arrival in Alabama, his life took a harsh turn. The blame, he conceded, was partly his own. He described his youthful self as “designing, hateful, and determined.” He was proud and uncompliant . He resented power and rebelled at authority, two of the essential pillars of slavery. He recoiled at injustice. A ruthless beating by his first employer, the plasterer, whom he could not please, sent him to a hospital. There, when Parker witnessed a white woman attendant administer harsh punishment to another patient, he protested. In the scuffle that followed, he seized the woman’s whip and used it on her. After this potentially catastrophic act, flight seemed his only recourse, so he stowed himself on a riverboat bound for New Orleans. By skill and remarkable luck, he eluded detection and, after many perils , eventually found himself again in Mobile in the doctor’s custody without having been punished for an action that the slave regime ordinarily judged among the most heinous of offenses. The doctor then apprenticed him to an iron molder, a trade that would serve Parker well throughout the rest of his life. Still, the arrangement did not work out. He had failed to internalize the servile values considered appropriate to his status. Some thought he did not behave as a slave should; his demeanor resembled that of a free man. Enthusiastic about his new craft, he antagonized the other workmen by his exceptional diligence and skill. He spent his earnings, which his owner allowed him to keep, on clothing of style and quality judged unsuited to a slave. His associates at the foundry probably did not err in finding him both arrogant and insolent. Tensions in the shop grew. He soon fell into what he described as “a regular knock-down-anddrag -out fistfight” with the foreman. News of this dire offense led Parker’s owner to hurry him out...