Sunday, March 30, 2014

Book Review: His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad

This is a fascinating book.  I had never read the word of someone who had been a slave.  This man had some fascinating stories to tell.  John P. Parker was part of the Underground Railroad in Ripley, Ohio, just across from Kentucky on the Ohio River.  But the story starts before this.  Parker was a slave.  His mother was a slave, and his father was the white owner.  He was sold down the river, to work on the plantations.  Something I learned is that the Northern states generally did not use slaves for labor, but would breed slaves, and then ship them south.  It had been illegal for sometime to import slaves.  Parker said he inherited a couple things from his father.  Intelligence and creativity; and anger.  He talked of his trip south, and the callous nature of the overseers.  Someone he was chained with almost drowned.  However he says the worst of slavery was not the physical hardship; but the humiliation of not being a person.  He was bought by a doctor.  He learned to read.  He was able to use books of the doctor, and in fact went away to school with the doctor's sons.  However this was too far north, so he was brought home again.  He did runaway, and talks about this experience.  He was caught.  However the doctor did not punish him.  He was put up for sale again, and Parker convinced a widow to buy him, and then allow him to buy his freedom from her.  He was a foundry worker, and he would work extra and make extra money to pay for his freedom.  When he bought his freedom he headed north, but not before he finished a fight with a rival.  He went to Cleveland to work in the foundry business, and eventually made his way to Ripley.  He tells several humorous stories of his involvement with helping slaves make it to freedom.  Ripley had a large population of abolitionists, but now everyone felt this way.  This activity was scary and dangerous.  Even so, he helped over 400 people make it through Ripley and to places further north.  He would take a boat across the river, and help bring people back.  Some did not have good sense to be quiet, and he would have to threaten them.  One time he went into a master's bedroom to rescue a couple's baby because the master worried the slave parents might try to runaway.  He was not directly involved in the story of Eliza from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" which he knew of as she went through Ripley.  The Parker had a keen sense of humor.  However he was also a man who lived with danger.  He would always walk in the middle of the road, for fear someone might come out of an alley to get him. 
This book is edited by Stuart Seeley Prague, and is based on manuscript of interviews by Frank M Gregg with Parker conducted in the 1880s.  This presents some cause for alarm.  Could Parker have been saying what he thought his white interviewer wanted to hear, or could the years of passing effected his memory.  However, the story very likely mostly accurate.  Even with years, these type of experiences are remembers.  Parker had kept a diary of people helped rescue.  However he burned it in the foundry with over 300 names, when the Fugitive Slave Act which established serious penalties for those who helped runaway slaves.  He could have been thrown in jail and his property confiscated.
This is a fascinating story.  That men would put their own safety, property and even lives on the line for other people's freedom shows a special kind of character and courage.

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