“These were the days of passion and battle which turned father against son, and neighbor against neighbor.” — John Parker
John Parker was born a slave in Virginia in 1827, the son of a slave woman and the plantation owner, and was sold at age 8 by his owner/father. He was taken to Alabama in a shackled caravan of slaves, and at his new master’s home in Mobile he secretly learned to read. He escaped at age 16, was caught, escaped again, was caught again, and finally gained his freedom for good, buying it for $1,800.
He went from Indiana to Cincinnati, where he worked in iron foundries, and what started as one mission to help escaping slaves led to a second occupation, first in Cincinnati, later in Ripley, where he operated an iron foundry. He often walked miles into Kentucky to help blacks escape, and his passionate hatred of slavery drove him to risk life and property to help other blacks gain freedom.
In one incident, he walked to Kentucky to help a slave couple and their baby escape, but the plantation owner, sensing the blacks’ nervousness, took the baby into his bedroom for the night. Parker crept into the room and escaped with the baby while the white man fired a round at him, and as he ran past the couple he yelled at them that he had their baby and if they wanted it they had best follow.
“No night was too dark or too cold for me to issue forth on a mission of relief and to those who came knocking at my door,” he told Frank Gregg, a journalist, in the 1880s.
He kept a detailed journal of those he helped to escape until the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed, which enacted strict fines and jail time for people helping escaping slaves. Knowing the jeopardy his journal could cause him, he burned the book in his iron furnace.
Parker became well known in the South, and large rewards were offered for his capture or death. On one of his excursions into Kentucky he saw posters offering $1,000 for his capture or death tacked to trees and fence posts.
At the start of the Civil War Parker supervised the recruitment of free blacks in Ripley.
The interviews with Gregg were published as “The Autobiography of John Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad” in 1996.