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FALL 2011 65 Interpreting the History of the Underground Railroad in Southwest Ohio: The John P. Parker House Daniel Vivian I n the decades before the Civil War, Ripley, Ohio, stood at the center of the growing conflict between slavery and freedom. Strategically located downriver from Maysville, Kentucky, Ripley became a destination for thousands of runaway slaves. A large and active antislavery society lent assistance to fugitives, and the intrepid leadership of militant abolitionist John C. Rankin supplied connections to operatives elsewhere. Between the 1820s and the Civil War, hundreds of runaways passed through Ripley. Residents of the town lived amid growing strife. Contemporaries referred to the Ohio River Valley as a “borderland”—a term that aptly characterized its role in the developing struggle. With the Ohio River demarcating the physical boundary between slaveholding territory and the free states of Ohio and Indiana, the valley became a primary site of conflict. As runaways streamed northward, communities along the river became deeply divided. Especially after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, many experienced near-constant turmoil.1 The John P. Parker House at 330 Front Street in Ripley, Ohio. Once the residence of antislavery activist John P. Parker, it now interprets his life, activism, and the history of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley. COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR INTERPRETING THE HISTORY OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN SOUTHWEST OHIO 66 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Today, the tensions of the late antebellum era have long since passed, and few reminders of the Civil War era remain. Time, however, has done little to dull the region’s rich history. In recent years, the valley has assumed a leading role in public interpretation of slavery, antislavery, and their associated conflicts. In particular, the region arguably leads the nation in interpreting the history of the “Underground Railroad,” as the clandestine network of operatives, safe houses, and routes that shepherded runaway slaves to freedom in the decades before the Civil War is commonly known. A large and well-established network of historic sites and museums offers informative and compelling insights into fugitive slaves’ flight to freedom. Anchored by sites such as the John Rankin House in Ripley and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, the Parker House attracts visitors from across the nation. The John P. Parker House stands among the most recent additions to this burgeoning network of heritage sites. The residence of a former slave who purchased his freedom and became a successful entrepreneur, the Parker House commemorates the life of its namesake , a lesser-known hero of the antislavery crusade. Parker arrived in Ripley in 1845. A skilled iron molder, he found work in a local foundry. He also became involved in efforts to rescue runaway slaves. Parker quickly gained renown as a near-fearless rescuer of fugitives. Working in close connection with Rankin, Levi Coffin, and other operatives, Parker assisted large numbers of runaways. A visit to the Parker House is a rewarding experience, rich in insights into Parker’s life, the antislavery struggle, and nineteenth-century Ripley. Interpretive exhibits supply copious information about Parker and his exploits. Docents provide further details about Parker’s path from slavery to freedom, his family, and his postbellum career. The house itself is a remarkable artifact. By demonstrating the material comfort in which Parker and his family lived, it stands as clear testimony to his success. Yet for all that the Parker House offers, its interpretive program is not without limitations. None detract seriously from the visitor experience, and most people will leave thoroughly satisfied. But persons familiar with recent scholarship will question some of the choices made and wonder about select points of emphasis. The Parker House delivers an informative portrait of Parker’s life and antislavery activism and succeeds in highlighting the importance of a long-overlooked figure. At the same time, it falls short on several counts. Ultimately, these prevent it from telling as incisive and compelling a story as it might. The origins of the Parker House museum date to the early 1990s. With Parker all but forgotten and the house that he and his family once occupied in disrepair , it seemed certain that he would remain...