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  • Writer's pictureTim Burke

John P. Parker: An American Hero

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

Underground Railroad routes in and around Cincinnati used by John P. Parker and other "conductors".
Underground Railroad Routes 1840-1861 (American Writer's Project c. 1935)

John Parker walked the streets of Ripley Ohio with a brace of pistols and knife in his belt out of necessity. In Ripley, on the north bank of the Ohio River, he built a life as a successful entrepreneur building and running a foundry manufacturing farm equipment by day. It however, was Parker’s activities at night that placed his life in danger for almost 15 years. Parker you see was an African American who regularly risked his life and freedom traveling into “enemy territory “ as he thought of it, Kentucky, a slave state to help more than 440 people escape to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad, making him one of the great unsung heroes in the fight against slavery. [i]

Until the 1990’s much about Parker’s life had been forgotten or had never been known , until a long-forgotten account of his life was discovered in the archives of Duke University and published as His Promised Land : The Autobiography of John P. Parker . He is still largely unknown to most students of history and many of his adventures disappeared with him when he died in 1900 at the age of 83. Even today there are no known photographs of John Parker. But what is known makes him as a remarkable man, being in my own course terms- a true American badass, a genuine American hero who repeatedly and voluntarily risked his life for others.

Just as John Parker was born into slavery in 1827, a new era of reform was unfolding in the United States with abolitionism at its center. Though there had always been individuals who fought the existence of slavery and informal organizations that aided those trying to escape it, there weren’t organizations formally dedicated to its destruction until the late 1820’s. A growing willingness to speak out against slavery, even though by a relatively small minority was met with growing unhappiness for the criticism in the South. By the 1830’s Southern slave holders had become more aggressive in their defense slavery and completely intolerant of criticism, making it unsafe to even publicly espouse an antislavery position in states that permitted slavery. This was accompanied by growing sectional tensions associated with slavery and expansion.

In 1835 at the age of eight Parker was taken from his mother in Norfolk, Virginia and sold to a slave broker who marched him to Richmond, Virginia to be sold again. Though he spent only four months in Richmond, he witnessed a horrible event that left an indelible mark on him. He saw an old man, who had gone out of his way to be kind to the heartbroken eight-year-old on the long walk from Norfolk, whipped to death. It was an event he recalled decades later as igniting his hatred for slavery and as a catalyst for gaining his freedom. From Richmond Parker was marched westward along with 400 other human beings chained tightly together all the way to Mobile, Alabama, a fate suffered by tens of thousands as the “cotton kingdom” expanded to places like Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas.

In Mobile he was sold to a physician as a domestic servant. It was there Parker was exposed to books and secretly taught to read and write by the physician’s children in violation of Alabama’s laws. After almost eight years with the doctor a series of events took place that led the 16-year-old Parker to escape - leading to almost 10 months of freedom along the Mississippi including a stint in New Orleans before he was caught and returned to Mobile. The physician, unhappy with Parker’s behavior decided to sell him into back breaking field work, on an Alabama plantation. Before it happened however, Parker convinced a sympathetic patient of the doctor to buy him with intent of allowing Parker to work for wages and buy his own freedom. Parker had learned the iron trade during the previous year in New Orleans, a valuable skill that would be important throughout the rest of his life . Finally, in 1845 at the age of 18, Parker made the last payment to Mrs. Ryder( the patient) and became a free man.

Parker made his way up the Mississippi River to Jeffersonville , Indiana to find work as an iron molder where he began his personal “war on slavery”. The battleground Parker labeled the “Borderlands”, stretched from the north bank of the Ohio across the river and deep into Kentucky. While “the war “ was primarily conducted at night, no hour was ever completely safe for Parker, a fact he lived with from 1845 to 1865. Of the men who waged war on slavery he wrote they were “watched “ by their neighbors, “threatened by authorities, and frequently betrayed” by their friends. [ii]

Parker was harassed and cajoled into making his first foray into Kentucky while in Cincinnati, but ultimately it was something he did voluntarily. It was a harrowing journey to aid two women already on the run but it took three separate trips across the Ohio before he made contact with the women and found a skiff to cross the river, a skiff that almost sank. Once he made it to Ohio, Parker had to contend with armed pursuers hunting them. It was more complicated than Parker had imagined but ultimately convinced him to move to Ripley, Ohio and commit to the war on slavery. During the brief time Parker was in Indiana he also met Levi Coffin.

Coffin, a Quaker who had been involved in the Underground Railroad movement since the 1820’s, played a major role in helping to organize important escape routes that ran through Madison and New Albany, Indiana. The Underground Railroad was a loosely organized network of abolitionists who aided people escaping to freedom. It was not a formal organization. It was a series of local networks made up of people who trusted each other. In some places there were high profile figures who were widely known to be involved, like Coffin, who was thought to have helped more than 3,000 people escape. He however had no more authority in the network than anyone else.

In 1847 Coffin moved to Cincinnati to open a dry goods store that sold only goods made with free labor. In Cincinnati Coffin again played a role in strengthening escape routes away from the Ohio River. He lived among other places at Sixth and Elm Street and on Wehrman Streets. By 1847 Parker had also moved to Cincinnati and again began to actively aid those escaping across the Ohio to freedom. Ann Hagedorn who wrote Beyond the River: The Untold Story of The Underground Railroad, noted that Parker was “one of the few” free African-Americans willing to work with Coffin or other white abolitionists involved in the Underground Railroad. [iii]

In Cincinnati slavery was a volcanic issue. Sitting on the fault line between North and South there was no shortage of incidents between abolitionists and firebrand supporters of slavery. The city had a well -deserved reputation as an important stop on the Underground Railroad but also as a flashpoint when abolitionist made their opinions too public. The city had prospered as a crossroads for Northern and Southern commerce and there were too many associated with commerce who would not abide by public behavior that might mar the city’s reputation in the South. As early as 1836 the public discussion of abolitionism turned violent in Cincinnati, when the office of an abolitionist newspaper, the Philanthropist,was ransacked and the life of its editor James G. Birney threatened. A week later the mob returned and destroyed the press and went looking for Birney who fortunately they didn’t find. Yet, abolitionism was supported well enough for the Philanthropist to have more than 1,700 subscribers. However, in 1842 another newspaper, the Anti-Abolitionist was printing a list of those in the Cincinnati area known to be abolitionists, and urging Southerners and those who were supporters of slavery to avoid doing business with them. Among those on the list were attorneys, ministers, grocers, printers, shoemakers, tanners and the famous like, Salmon P. Chase, and many who time would forget.

Facing both physical and economic peril, many abolitionists working on the Underground Railroad worked with anonymity , especially African-Americans who faced particularly grave risks helping others to escape. They had no choice but to be careful of who they worked with and kept their activities secret for legal, economic and safety reasons meaning many operators especially African-Americans will never be known. Though Parker was bold, he also was smart. He never allowed any photographs to be taken of him fearing they could be used to aid in his capture. The consequence of this was there are no known photographs of him today.

In 1848 Parker married Miranda Bouldin in Cincinnati. Shortly thereafter he and Miranda moved to Ripley where they lived until Parker’s death in 1900 raising six children, operating an iron foundry and carrying on a war against slavery at night. He regularly rowed across the Ohio River to Kentucky in search of those in need of his help, not knowing what the night would bring. At other times Parker departed on a mission based on a plea for help in crossing through the dangers of the Borderlands.

Until 1851 Parker kept a journal detailing the names of the people he helped, a total of 315. In 1850 however, a new federal law was passed leveling heavy fines and prison terms for those convicted of aiding “fugitives” escaping from slavery. This new legislation made the journal a dangerous piece of evidence that could be used against him forcing him to destroy it. From this point on he kept no formal record of who and how many he helped. While there was a small but solid core of people led by the Reverend John Rankin committed to helping people escape to freedom in Ripley, along with many who sympathized with their cause, the surrounding Brown County, Ohio leaned proslavery. Often people think of Ohio as solidly abolitionist and a safe place for those escaping to the North – this was not true. Across Southern Ohio as in Cincinnati there were many who were pro-slavery or saw abolitionism as a threat to peace and economic stability, meaning Parker was never completely safe. Everyone in Ripley and the surrounding area knew he was involved with Underground Railroad but knowing and proving it in court of law were two different things. With Ohio law and a strong core of supporters around him, Parker was safer in Ripley than in Kentucky but there were always those looking for him to slip up, though it never happened. Night after night he slipped across the river into Kentucky helping as many as a thousand people to freedom before the 13th Amendment was ratified, ending slavery. Parker was shot at, threatened and a price placed on his head. On one of his nightly forays into Kentucky he came face to face with a poster nailed to a tree in Mason County, Kentucky that announced in “large letters – Reward $1,000 For John Parker, Dead or Alive.”[iv]

At one point he was under such constant surveillance he had to temporarily step away from his vocation. However, when by mistake a party on the run was led to his home, he had to take action. Parker led a shadowy figure paid to spy on him through a series of narrow alleys to a darkened doorway where in his words :

“I pushed him into the moonlight, so he could see the knife which I held at his breast. I knew he was no coward, so I took no chances with him. Pressing my knife close to chest, I told him I knew his Kentucky friends were paying to watch me, that I had enough of him and them, unless he went on about his business, I would kill him at any other time I found him following me.” [v]

It must have been seen as a credible threat as Parker noted the round the clock surveillance of his home ended that night. He clearly was seen as dangerous and a man of his word. His autobiography mentions one more serious attempt to capture him for the reward, an incident that began on a steamer in Cincinnati making a return trip to Ripley. Before it was over it consisted of shots exchanged between Parker and a group of men, and ultimately a desperate escape in a small row boat that almost resulted in his drowning. Unfortunately, a friend of Parker’s was also killed on the boat.[vi]

When the Civil War began in 1861 Parker continued his efforts but also recruited hundreds of African-Americans for the Union army in Kentucky when its ranks were opened to African- Americans in 1863. As the war progressed there were fewer people held in slavery in Northern Kentucky though slavery continued to be legal in the state until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

After the war Parker shifted his attention to his foundry business which experienced several ups and downs associated with the health of the overall economy. During this period of time he also patented several pieces of farm equipment which contributed to his overall economic success which was tempered not only by the fortunes of the overall economy but also by fires that destroyed his foundry on several occasions. It was the volatility and danger of the foundry business which led him to send his children off to college insisting they not go into the foundry business.[vii] By the time of Parker’s death in 1900 his children were living in Chicago and St. Louis pursuing careers in teaching and educational administration. Parker outlived many of his allies from his Underground Railroad days and as the nation moved away from the goals of Reconstruction a new darkness had descended on the country in the form of segregation and the rise of the Klan. John Parker’s exploits and the exemplary life of heroism faded into oblivion until efforts to the discover story of the Underground Railroad began in the 1970’s. In Parker’s case the discovery of a manuscript in Duke University’s archives by historian Stuart Seely Sprague in 1993 ignited and deepened an understanding of who John P. Parker was – a truly amazing American hero whose bravery, empathy and unwavering commitment to the sacred cause of freedom should be celebrated.

  1. [i] His Promised Land : The Autobiography of John P. Parker, edited by Stuart Seely Sprague,1994, p. 127 [ii] His Promised Land p. 74. [iii]Hagedorn, Ann, Beyond The River: The Untold Story of The Underground Railroad,2002, p. 233. [iv] His Promised Land p. 128 [v] His Promised Land p. 130 [vi] His Promised Land P.133-135

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