In 1845, John Parker was newly free from the slavery he had been born into in Virginia. He had been working in foundries and had gotten far better than any white Southerner wanted him to be.
Not the slave state of Virginia, where he could be captured and sold even though he was free. Permanent freedom meant living in a free state, so he moved to Indiana.
Either Indiana town led, one hundred miles away, to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Parker was living in 1845. And in Cincinnati, John Parker was first asked to risk his life for another.
John Parker had been marched as a child through frozen Virginia, into the soul-killingly free nature of Virginia, down into the heat of Alabama. He had been taken to Pennsylvania and nearly freed but for his ignorance. He had worked for years -- lost jobs, had a winning idea stolen -- to become legally free.
And now, risk all those years of work for two slave girls he didn’t know? In a slave state?
But that barber -- a free black man, just like Parker, and both living in the same boarding house -- kept asking for help, telling Parker of the plan to bring the girls across the river in a boat in Ripley, an eighteen-hour walk away.
Days passed. More than a week. Still those two slave girls were hiding, waiting to be free.
But now they couldn’t find a boat on the Ohio side of the river. The barber abandoned the plan.
Also but now, John Parker had a mission. He didn’t want to be a slave again, but he hated slave catchers and slave owners.
By day, John Parker made metal objects. By night, he made slaves free. Before September 18, 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, he kept records of the 315 slaves he’d helped free -- about one every week.
Also before September 18, 1850 -- on May 12, 1848 -- John Parker married Miranda Boulden, a black woman who was born free in Cincinnati. Also in 1848, he opened a grocery store.
Black-owned businesses in America in the 1840s were uncommon. Black-owned anything -- including one's self -- was uncommon.
Not long after he founded the general store (the research mutely suggests it didn't go well), he went back to foundry work, and in 1855, a year after he had bought a house in Ripley, he and a business partner bought a foundry (some sources say he erected a boiler on the riverfront). He needed to make money, what with having two young sons. Here’s an advertisement from 1859.
The move to Ripley was primarily but not exclusively about business opportunities. Helping those two girls become free (they went to Canada, as with so many other freed fugitive slaves) had given John Parker another way to find meaning in his own freedom.
In the months ahead, Parker connected with Levi Coffin, the Quaker merchant in Wayne County, Indiana, who had worked with both of the Mahan brothers and regularly connected with the Ripley line. Two years later, Coffin moved to Cincinnati and opened a dry-goods store that sold only products made with slave-free labor; it was a few blocks away from a general store owned by Andrew Coombs, a former student of Rankin’s at Ripley College and an active member of the underground. Their stores were at the intersection of two runaway-slave routes: one leading from Cincinnati to Ripley, and another through New Richmond and Batavia in Clermont County. By then, Parker had used both routes on numerous occasions.John Parker risked losing his freedom every time he went into slave country -- that makes it sound like a different country, and sociologically, it was.
Parker was one of the few free blacks willing to work with either Coffin or Coombs. Though Cincinnati was indeed a hub of Underground Railroad activities, free blacks and whites often looked at each other with great suspicion. In later years, Parker would say that he preferred working with the Ripley underground, where blacks and whites usually did work together, and where he felt the efficiency was greater. Ripley, Parker said, was "the real terminus of the Underground Railroad. The Ripley group was the intermediary between the spirits of the Revolutionary patriots and the fiery New England group who took this fire and inspiration about 1830 from the irrepressible firebrand William Lloyd Garrison."
In 1849, the year after his marriage, Parker and his wife, Miranda Boulden, moved to Ripley, where he continued to live a double life: by day an iron molder, and by night a conductor on the underground. Parker quickly became a powerful player on the Ripley line, where his bold style was unmatched: crossing the river, walking sometimes miles into slave territory, and working directly with slaves on a scheme for their escape. The Commercial Tribune of Cincinnati once said of Parker, "A more fearless creature never lived."
Of this period of time on the Ripley underground, Parker later told a journalist, "Every night of the year saw runaways, singly or in groups, making their way slyly to the country north. Every precaution was taken to prevent the fugitive from successfully passing through this forbidden land. The woods were patrolled nightly by constables and any man black or white had to give a good account of himself, especially if he were a stranger. Every ford was watched, while along the creeks and the river, the skiffs were not only pulled up on shore, but were padlocked to trees, and the oars removed. There were dogs in every dooryard, ready to run down the unfortunate. Once word came from the South that runaways were on the way, the whole countryside turned out, not only to stop the fugitives, but to claim the reward for their capture. Everything was organized against the slaves’ getaway."
He could have lost his freedom, his business and his family -- four of his six living children were born before slavery was abolished.
But everything in him was united against slavery. This may be best illustrated not with the number of slaves he rescued but how hard he worked and how massively he risked his life to help black people become free.
John Parker had a $1,000 bounty on his head for years. Slave catchers and at least most slave owners in Northern Kentucky wanted him captured and/or killed, not necessarily in that order. So every time he went over to Kentucky, he was willingly getting close to the men who tried to kill him so he could take slaves over to Ohio and to freedom.
Now, remember that Parker was a foundry owner by day and an outlaw by night. One of his employees, Jim Shrofe, didn’t like how his boss was breaking the law and stealing property. So he dared Parker to steal one of his slaves, possibly hoping to capture Parker and collect the $1,000 reward. (Other accounts say the slaves belonged to Shrofe’s father.)
Shrofe or his father had been waiting for Parker to try again since November. Six months later,
John went back across the river and found the same man and told him that he had come back for him and his family. The man told John to leave him alone because since the first time he had come the master watches them carefully and took their baby and makes her sleep at the end of his bed. He also said that the master has a loaded pistol at his side and would kill anyone who comes after the baby. John went home feeling bad that he could not help this family.John entered his employee’s bedroom, took the baby, extinguished the candle and bolted.
The next night, John rowed back across the river to save the family. They were afraid, so John told the father to hold his shoes and he would go get their baby.
Soon John came back with the baby followed by the sound of gun shots. They ran to the boat and rowed back across the river. The man lost John's shoes when he was running.Shrofe didn’t show up for work the next day.
Soon after John made it home, he heard a knock on the door. It was Jim Shrofe holding John's shoes. He offered the shoes in exchange for his father's slaves. John said that he had never seen the shoes before and invited Jim in to look for the slaves, allowing more time for the family to get a head start to freedom.
The slaves John Parker rescued that night were named Isaac and Sarah, and when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Parker tossed his diary of rescues in his iron furnace and the Ripley group’s work went on "more aggressively than ever."
We might have had a beautifully rich accounting of so many of the slaves who realized their right to be free if not for that damned law.
Instead, I know of one black conductor’s account that was preserved. The three hundred fifteen lives John Parker helped improve -- we have no names. No black families in Canada or America can trace their freedom back to an entry on paper -- it’s all ash because Parker and his fellow conductors feared for their everything if the records were found.
You know what’s a pretty good business to have in times of war?
A business making iron castings. Horseshoes. Minie balls. Camp equipment.
You know what’s another pretty good business to have in times of war?
After the war, Parker’s business did well -- would have done better without several fires that kept killing ventures he didn’t know a lot about.
Parker did know a lot about agricultural tools. He made them. And in his fifties and early sixties, he patented three:
1) A follower screw for tobacco presses in 1884.
2) The portable screw press in 1885.
3) The Parker Pulverizer, which he had started work on while still a slave, and now was patenting forty-five years later, in 1890.
Now, this machine had been made in 1845. We don’t know it had been sold, but the people who assembled it after the idea was stolen probably expected it to sell.
This subject is the source of most of my questions about John Parker. Most crucially: Why did his old foundry not patent this device? And why did he want forty-five years to patent it himself?
My best guess is that he didn’t make or patent it for years because he thought surely that old foundry would be running with it, given how many models had already been made in the days after he mistook that superintendent for an ethical human. And then, as he was patenting those two other devices, he happened to ask about the clod pulverizer. Roughly thirty had been patented since he had left the South -- but not one south of Tennessee.
One day, a few years before John patented the soil pulverizer, a newspaper reporter came calling.