Today, we follow a slave out of slavery. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
John P. Parker was born in
Norfolk, Virginia, in 1827. His mother was a slave,
and his father was white. Most of what we know of
Parker comes down through the transcription of an
oral history from the late 1880s. That narrative
takes up when Parker was sold away from his mother
at the age of eight.
As he marched in chains from Norfolk to Mobile, a
terrible knot of anger welled up in him. He tells
of smashing blossoms along the trail with a stick
-- of hating the flowers for being free.
For eighteen years he tried to escape slavery.
Meanwhile, he learned the trade of iron molding. At
length he managed to save enough money to
buy his freedom. He made his way north,
married, and settled in the town of Ripley, Ohio,
across from Kentucky. At first he worked as an iron
founder. After the Civil War he went into business
for himself. He created a foundry and a machine
shop. He obtained patents for agricultural
equipment. He became wealthy.
The writer who took down Parker's oral history
wasn't interested in Parker's inventive and
business successes. That part of the story barely
appears in the biography.
The interview was driven, instead, by the
popularity of the book Uncle Tom's Cabin. Harriet
Beecher Stowe had fueled abolition sentiments and
Civil War itself when she wrote about Eliza
bundling up her baby and fleeing over melting ice
to Ohio. Stowe later said that Ripley was
the town to which a real-life Eliza had run.
A Congregationalist minister named John Rankin had
been the center of intense Underground Railway
activity in Ripley. He was credited with saving the
real-life Eliza. But it was also Rankin who'd given
Parker's rage at slavery the focus it needed.
Working closely with Rankin, Parker had, for
fifteen years, lived a double life. He'd founded
iron by day. By night, he'd smuggled hundreds of
slaves out of Kentucky and sent them on their way
So the reason for going after Parker was only to
verify the Eliza story. As it turned out, Parker
had a much larger story to tell. Yes, he knew of
Eliza, although he hadn't witnessed her escape. But
the escape from slavery gains a reality we miss in
Uncle Tom's Cabin when Parker describes his
own commando raids into Kentucky. He tells of
hairbreadth escapes, of being shot at, beaten, and
for years carrying a thousand-dollar price on his
So Parker was tempered by risk, action, principle,
and righteous anger. Out of that he wrested more
than prosperity. He found intellectual fulfillment
as well, and he sent his sons and daughters on to
be educated at schools like Oberlin and Mount
Without the public's fascination over Eliza on the
ice, Parker would've been just one more anonymous
hero, one more lost story of triumph over hardship
-- there were so many. It took the courage and
tenacity of hundreds of John Parkers finally to
free us all from the nightmare years we spent
trafficking in human slavery.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds