The Underground Railroad was a network of free African Americans and sympathetic whites that concealed, clothed, and guided fugitive slaves to the North and freedom. The “railroad” comprised a series of stops often tended by local vigilance committees in northern communities. John P. Parker was born into slavery in Norfolk, Virginia, but became a freeman by 1845. He moved to Rowley, Ohio with its active abolitionist community and followed his trade as an iron master by day while rescuing fugitive slaves by night. Free blacks such as Parker supplied most of the needed labor and finances to help escaped slaves. Parker, it is believed, helped hundreds escape to freedom across the Ohio River from Kentucky along the busiest segment of the railroad. He then passed them on to another “conductor,” braving significant dangers, as related in this excerpt from a recently published autobiography compiled from newspaper interviews with Parker in 1885.
The first adventure promoted me to move to Ripley, where there was an iron foundry. To give you the real background of my activities, it is necessary to tell you about Ripley in 1845. At that time it was as busy as a beehive. There was no town along the Ohio River except Cincinnati that was in its class. There was a group of live men there that made it the center of industry and finance. There was Samuel Hemphill,29 Archibald Leggett,30 the Boyntons, Thomas McCague,31 James Reynolds were the leaders.
There were the upper and lower boatyards, busy the year round. The upper boatyard was the oldest and larger of the two, located at the mouth of Red Oak Creek. There was a jut of land below the creek which gave the boatyard a safe harbor, winter and summer.32 One hundred flatboats were made here in one year for Vevay, Indiana, to float hay down the river. These boats were turned out in quantities and very rapidly all winter long. The mills would turn out the parts, so all that would have to be done in the spring and summer was to assemble the parts into flatboats.
These boats were assembled bottom side up. When they slid down the way, they were upset so they floated right side up. In winter steamboats were on the ways. The entire riverfront was filled with flatboats loading cargoes for New Orleans and all waypoints. Winter and summer there flowed down the river highways into the town a continuous stream of logs night and day. Only pork was packed, as the south did not feed beef to its slaves. The slaughterhouses were in full blast at all seasons. Flour mills, both water and steam, ground up the grain of the neighboring farms, which were very fertile. One mill located back from the river had an overhead gravity runway, sending the barrels from the mill across the creek down to the bank to the flatboats.
All winter long the farmer and his family were busily engaged making pork and flour barrels, and tobacco hogsheads. These were brought to town either on sleighs or by four-to-six-horse teams. At times the farmers killed [and] packed their own hogs. A woolen mill made most of the jeans for the town and flatboats.
There were still Jacksonian gentlemen who wore blue jean suits with brass buttons and swallow coattails, who devoted as much time to keeping their long rows of brass buttons shining as the men of today to preening and cleaning.33
This little town was so rich [that] in the Panic of 1837, it sent its funds to help New York banks over that depression. It was as busy as a beehive and as thrifty as it was busy.
I must make a passing observation that it is now 60 years after the time I have just been dealing with. All the boatyards are gone. The flatboats have disappeared years ago, not even a steamboat can be seen. That group of able financiers and businessmen are gone and with one exception not a kith or kin of those busy men is left in town.
The men and women of the metropolis of Ripley have passed on. Hardly a memory of them now exists, except in the mind of a few aged citizens like myself. So quickly does our country change in its centers of trade but [also] in its methods of trade. But the Ohio River still remains a thing of real beauty to me.
Amidst this commercial activity lived and moved the little group of old-time abolitionists. They were by name Dr. Alexander Campbell, Rev. John Rankin, Theodore, Tom, and Eli Collins, Tom McCague, Dr. Beasley, [and] Rev. James Gilli-land. The undoubted leader was Rev. John Rankin.
While the businessmen were not abolitionists, they were antislavery. But the town itself was proslavery as well as the country around it. In fact, the country was so antagonistic to abolitionism at this time, we could only take the fugitives out of town and through the country along definite and limited routes.
There was also very active a certain group of men who made a living by capturing the runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. These men were on watch day and night along the riverbank the year round. While they captured quite a few it was remarkable how many slaves we got through the line successfully. The feeling grew so tense Rev. John Rankin and his followers left the Presbyterian church forming a new congregation who were given over to the antislavery movement.
Many of the Methodists were in silent sympathy with the movement, [and] would give us money, but would take no aggressive part. As a matter of fact, this abolitionist group were ridiculed, detested, and even threatened by the town’s people.
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in , the attitude of the town’s people grew even more critical of our group.37 We had to be more secretive than ever, for it meant confiscation of property, a fine, and [a] jail sentence.
I had kept a diary giving the names, dates, and circumstances of all the slaves I had helped run away, which at that time numbered 315. As I had accumulated considerable property, as a matter of safety I threw this diary into the iron furnace, for fear it might fall into other hands.
The other men were equally as cautious, but the work went on just the same. Having now become actively engaged in aiding the fugitives, my contact with the other abolitionists was close, and maintained until the close of the Civil War.
Now to an adventure that required all my skill and resourcefulness to get out of a bad situation. Tom Collins, the coffin maker, came to me [one] night very much excited, bringing with him one of the freemen of the town. His agitation was due to a message which this freeman had given him, to the effect that there was a party of refugees hiding in the woods in Kentucky about 20 miles from the river.
The word was that the slaves were from the central Kentucky [area, and] had made their way to where they were, when their leader was captured. With no one to guide them they were helpless. It was one of those “grape vine” dispatches, given by word of mouth from one friend to another until it mysteriously got across the river.
Being new and zealous in this work, I volunteered to go to the rescue. As my mission was a dangerous one, I put a pair of pistols in my pockets and a knife in my belt, ready for emergencies. The colored man himself was a slave and lived across the river in Kentucky. He had stolen a boat to bring the message to us, so that I accompanied him in it across the river. He furthermore assured me he would take me to the cabin of another colored slave, who would guide me to the fugitives. It was about daylight by the time we reached my guide, who hid me away in the woods. That night we found the party in the midst of the deep woods, scared and perfectly helpless. There were ten in all, which included two women and their husbands.
They were paralyzed with fear since the loss of their leader, and huddled together like children. They were so badly demoralized some of them wanted to give themselves up, rather than face the unknown. Food had been supplied by friends, so they were well fed, otherwise I could not have done a thing with them.
One of the men set up a wail when I had them ready to start. Drawing a pistol I sternly gave him the choice of picking up his things and coming along, or be shot down in cold blood. After that show of force, I had my charges under my control. It was a fortunate thing for me I did, as you will soon see.
My guide could not stay with me, as he had to be back home by daylight. We dared not follow the road with our party, because we were in the Borderland, which was thoroughly patrolled, and we were likely to run on one of the guards at any turn of the road. Going through the brush was hard and exhaustive labor. With the exception of a clearing now and then, dense woods extended about to the river, so we could with care travel in the daytime. It was dangerous but I soon saw it was a chance I had to take.
They were hopeless woodsmen; try as I would, I could not keep them from breaking down the bushes [and] stepping on dry sticks, the cracking of which echoed through the woods like an alarm bell. I soon discovered I would have to keep them in the ravines where the ferns and moss grew. Instead of being demoralized, they now became buoyant and . . . [hopeful] over their prospects.
In spite of my warnings, one of the single men, being thirsty, decided he would look for a spring. Again I begged him to stay by the party. As he insisted I had to let him go. Fortunately, I moved the party ahead. He had hardly got out of sight when I heard him shout. And [he] came racing through the brush pursued by two white men.
As soon as I heard the shout I made my party lie down. The man, forgetting the location of our party, went flying by where we were lying. Shortly there was a shot, which I could see disturbed my crowd. Drawing my pistol I quietly told them I would shoot the first one that dared make a noise, which had a quieting effect.
Shortly, there was a cracking of the brush. Peering cautiously through the bushes, I saw our man being led by a rope. He had his arms tied behind his back. Evidently, the fugitive had not betrayed the presence of his friends, because the three men went on their way, looking neither to the right or left, and were soon lost in the undergrowth. It was a mighty narrow escape for me and my party, for had we gone straight ahead, we would have all been trapped and captured.
Not knowing how soon the captured man might tell of the presence of the party, I decided to get as far away from this spot as I could. Ordering the crowd to their feet, I impressed upon them that I was in greater danger than they were, and that unless they listened to me, I would leave them just where they were and save myself.
Everything went well until we came to a road. Hiding my party, I advanced to make a survey of the situation. I found a well-traveled road which I was sure I could not get across in daylight. Now the party wanted to push ahead, and it was only after more threats that I got [them] safely into the brush. It was a good thing that we did, for we had hardly hid before a party of white men on horseback passed along in sight of where I was lying. From time to time wagons rumbled by, so that I did not dare to let any of my party get out of sight, in fact move without my consent.
We made the river all right, but I was 24 hours ahead of my schedule, as Tom Collins had not figured I would travel by daylight. Consequently, there was no boat awaiting our arrival. I had no other alternative than to push straight down the bank and take my chances. My chances proved very poor, because I ran into a patrol. Seeing the size of our party he turned and ran away. I knew that the whole countryside would soon be buzzing like a hornet’s nest.
Making my people throw away their bundles, I started along the bank as fast as I could go, with the fugitives following. I could see the lights of the town, but they might as well have been [on] the moon so far as being a relief to me, in my present situation. I knew there were always boats about the ferry landing. My one hope was to beat my pursuers to them. One of the women fell exhausted.
I only stopped long enough to tell her to follow us if she could, because I could not wait. Sure enough, at the ferry I found one lone boat. The next thing was to find the oars. I sent the whole crowd stomping through the brush in search of them.
While we were wildly searching, I heard the cry of hounds. The patrol had worked faster than I thought. Leaping into the boat to tear up a seat to use as a paddle, I stumbled over the oars, which I had missed finding in the dark. With a halloo, I piled the crowd into the boat, only to find it so small it would not carry all of us. Two men were left on the bank.
As I started to push off, leaving the poor fellows on the bank to their cruel fate, one of the women set up a cry that one of the men on the bank was her husband. Then I witnessed an example of heroism and self-sacrifice that made me proud of my race. For one of the single men safely in the boat, hearing the cry of the woman for her husband, arose without a word [and] walked quietly to the bank. The husband sprang into the boat as I pushed off
As I rowed away to safety I saw dimly the silent but helpless martyr. We were still far from the Ohio shore when I saw lights around the spot where we had left the man, followed by shouts, [by] which I knew the poor fellow had been captured in sight of the promised land.
Collins was surprised as well as glad to see me. We decided, in view of the alarm, both of us had better send the party to the home of Rev. James Gilliland at Red Oak Chapel, about five miles from town. There we left them, which was the last time we ever saw or heard of that crowd.
Source: See Duke University’s John P. Parker Online Archival Collection
Source: John P. Parker, His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad ed. Stuart Seely Sprague (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 97–104.