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  • “When Freedom Comes”: Maria Parker, the Women’s Department, and the West Virginia State Penitentiary1
  • Katy Ryan

After the Civil War, West Virginia used the labor of people in custody to build the West Virginia State Penitentiary, a castellated gothic fortress in Moundsville. The state prison, modeled on Stateville in Illinois, was surrounded by twenty-five-feet-high walls of solid masonry. The design was intended to intimidate and to terrify—in order to redeem. The complex served as the state prison until 1995 when, unable to meet minimum standards for health and safety, the penitentiary was closed by federal order.

Women were confined at Moundsville as early as 1873 (the superintendent’s report that year mentioned an “entirely deranged” white female)2 and remained a presence until 1947 (when a separate facility opened at Pence Springs). But few records remain of their experiences. The records supervisor at Mount Olive Correctional Center, where materials were sent after the penitentiary closed, confirmed that most files related to women had never arrived.3 A fleeting women’s column in Work & Hope, an ephemeral magazine housed in the West Virginia and Regional History Center, provides entry into the largely unknown history of women at the West Virginia State Penitentiary.4

Published monthly inside the prison during the 1920s and advertised as “THE PRISONER’S ONLY VOICE TO YOU,” Work & Hope contains articles, poems, short stories, and drawings by imprisoned people as well as reprinted articles from local and national newspapers.5 Between January 1929 and January 1931, an African American schoolteacher named Maria Parker wrote a women’s column for the publication. Parker’s name appears as the author on fifteen of the twenty-three women’s columns during this two-year period. Seven are unsigned or signed “Female Department,” and one, a poem, is credited to Marion E. Williams.6 James McGrath Morris observes in Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars that until Wilbert [End Page 1] Rideau became editor of the Angolite in 1975, no black person had occupied a “position of authority on a prison newspaper.”7 However, fifty years earlier, Parker wrote most, if not all, of the articles from the women’s department in Work & Hope.

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West Virginia Penitentiary 1922. West Virginia and Regional History Center, West Virginia University Libraries.

After January 1931, the women’s column abruptly ceased without explanation. Around this time, Parker was transferred to the State Colored Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Denmar. Four years later, on June 22, 1935, Parker died of advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. She was thirty-six years old. Like many sent to the penitentiary, Parker was effectively sentenced to death. Over a thousand people died while serving time at Moundsville, many from tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other sicknesses exacerbated by the lack of ventilation, inadequate food, and lousy medical care. Many people killed themselves. Ninety-four men were executed.8

When reading work composed in state captivity, insufficiently critical practices can mask, as Dylan Rodriguez argues, the violence of incarceration and normalize the conditions of terror out of which imprisoned people write.9 This erasure may be especially tempting with prison publications that typically cannot report on unsafe conditions and mistreatment.10 On the surface, Parker’s writing is breezy, upbeat, conversational. She emphasizes the power of Christianity, forgiveness, and the good a smile can do. She also manages, [End Page 2] through indirection and understatement, to indict a coercive, threatening, and silencing environment. Her column subtly communicates the severity of everyday life and the consequences of long-term sentencing.

Although Parker does not address racism explicitly, she refers in her column to God’s wish for peace and goodwill, “regardless of race, color, or creed.”11 She cites the New Testament injunction to love one’s neighbor and adds that this “includes all classes, colors and kinds of people.”12 To be beautiful, she writes, is to “be pleasant, willing to serve, and know how to meet people of all classes and treat each person with due respect, to help lift anothers burden.”13 In her work on nineteenth-century black women’s spiritual writing, Joycelyn Moody observes that participation in Judeo-Christian...


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