In Ohio, a Warrior Against Slavery (Published 2017) (2022)

Eliza was fleeing her captors with her young son in her arms when she was stopped short by the banks of the frigid Ohio River. With the unthinking courage that comes from desperation, she leapt from one ice floe to another, occasionally falling into the freezing water and hoisting herself up, until arriving on the riverbank across the state line. After witnessing her harrowing journey, a white man who should have captured her ended up helping her ashore instead, directing her to a safe house rather than into the arms of her pursuers.

The story of a white man moved to save a slave so tugged at the heartstrings that the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe included a version of it in her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” For many who were assigned the book to read in school, the tale of Eliza is their first indelible image of escape from slavery.

The actual flight of Eliza began in Kentucky and ended on the riverbanks in Ripley, Ohio, abolitionists at the time said, making a white character based on a patroller one of the best-known saviors. But the true Moses of Ripley was a former slave named John P. Parker, who helped make the town a major nexus in the path of kidnapped Africans and their descendants determined that their lot in life was not to be thought of as property.

ImageIn Ohio, a Warrior Against Slavery (Published 2017) (1)

Parker helped hundreds of people find their freedom. The exact number is unknown because successful passage on the Underground Railroad meant it was undocumented, Dewey Scott, a docent at the John P. Parker House in Ripley, pointed out when I took a tour there in December. Parker was the rare conductor who, heavily armed, would cross the river into Kentucky and extract refugees who wanted freedom. His memoir reads like an action film: One of his most daring exploits was to deliver a sleeping child from the room of a white captor to parents who had yet to cross the river.

I had never heard of Parker or of Ripley, though I grew up about an hour and a half north of the town, on State Route 68. Fortunately, the story of Parker has not been entirely lost. It lives on, partly in the house and former foundry he owned that has been turned into a museum and a National Historic Landmark.

The red-brick building where Parker worked and lived is, quite frankly, stunning. As I pulled up to it, the late-afternoon sun was setting over the hills in Kentucky, and its reflection in the glassy river bathed the facade in amber from below. Still I wondered, given the modest size of the structure, whether it held enough of Parker to tell his tale. It didn’t quite, but Mr. Scott took care of what the house and its relics couldn’t. So did “His Promised Land,” a gripping memoir sold there based on an interview with Parker, which revealed a man who seemed never to shrink from a challenge.

John Parker was born to a black woman and white father in Norfolk, Va., and was sold from his family to a slave merchant and then resold for profit to a doctor in Mobile, Ala., all by the time he was 10. If the prospect of never again seeing his mother didn’t persuade him that slavery was atrocious, watching a fellow member of a chain gang being beaten to death convinced him that the institution was evil. Still, his time with the doctor wasn’t the worst that forced labor had to offer: He learned a trade (working at a foundry) and the doctor’s children sneaked him books and taught him to read.

Parker made sure to avoid the same fate of my own forefathers who toiled in the hot fields of the Deep South. When he learned that the doctor planned to sell him at auction, he persuaded a woman named Elizabeth Ryder to buy him, and he promised to repay her with earnings from a foundry. Because he had learned a trade, the widow could lease him to the foundry, earn money on his labor, and anything above the promised amount of the lease would be his to keep. The arrangement was common, but resulted in freedom only for some.

Rather than stay in the South, Parker settled in Ripley, making enough money to build the home next to his workshop, to marry and to raise children there. His career as a foundryman is the stuff of lore. He obtained a patent for a part that was in demand at tobacco factories, and became one of the richest men in the region, at that time a major trade hub in the United States.

He constantly risked it all for what he called his “war with slavery.” The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 strengthened penalties for those who helped people escape slavery. For that reason, perhaps, he rarely sheltered runaways, and a tour of his house does not feature the crawl spaces and secret passageways that some on the Underground Railroad do.

What it does contain are the sort of exhibits you’d expect: a mural detailing accomplishments like Parker’s appearance at a world exposition for a part he created. But the real story lay in the relics from the foundry that are on display and adorn the home. Some door hinges on the ground level (an item that I’d never thought of as decorative) are from Parker’s foundry. Tools made from the foundry are shown as well. The stairs at the front entrance were made in the foundry, too; they just needed a fresh coat of paint.


And there is plenty that isn’t made from the foundry but tells his life. The house does its job best in the room made up to appear as it would have in Parker’s day, complete with Ivory soap and a brush. The hardwood floors, in poplar, are from the original construction.

I peered from the window to look at the river. The sheer homeyness of the space highlighted a lovely domestic life that he and his wife risked daily.

On the lower level sits a boat that doubles as a frame for a series of paintings depicting Parker’s life. The craft is one he took night after night, combing the river for people who needed a hand on their way from a slave state to a free one.

Parker may have been a warrior against slavery, but he was not a lone one. Many who escaped stayed with one of the more than 300 people in Ripley estimated to be in service to the Underground Railroad, making it the largest network in the region. The Ripley chain included John Rankin, a clergyman who hosted the refugees and is the town’s best-known participant in the Underground Railroad; his house, which has been restored and is open to the public, sits on a large hill now named for him. And of course nearby Cincinnati has no shortage of sites to visit, like the Harriett Beecher Stowe House, or the fantastic National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, stocked with a replica of a slave cabin and immersive programming.


The fervent belief in the fundamental freedom of all people, regardless of color, was built into the foundation of Ohio. The land within the state’s bounds was originally settled as part of the Northwest Ordinance, the federal statute that set forth a westward expansion that would be propelled by settlers’ own grit rather than that of enslaved laborers. The first American settlement was created in 1788 in Marietta, Ohio, farther east along the river, and its residents outlawed slavery when the territory became a state 15 years later. Ohio’s free status ensured that refugees fleeing to the North would have to cross the state’s southwestern border, a formidable river.

These days, the rich history of the land along that border is largely hidden, when you drive along the water. Along Route 52, I stopped at a diner where nobody asked if you wanted your grilled cheese sandwich on whole wheat or seven-grain, nor did they ask what sort of cheese you wanted, because it was assumed the answer would be American. I passed a town called Utopia, whose boarded-up windows and stillness suggested it was anything but. There was another called Higginsport, which was a bit more pulled together but still contained an assemblage of buildings in disrepair.

Somewhere around there, I saw it: the Confederate flag. It was on the wrong side of the Ohio River (notwithstanding the short-lived occupation by a Confederate general that was mainly a looting mission).

That flag flying so close to the river represented both abolition’s triumph and its failure. The borders between states may have become less significant, and the river is little more than a lovely landscape, complete with migrating birds. Yet it also means that even in Ohio, the flag of the rebel army, which fought for the right to keep people in bondage, flies. The whole of America may be a free state but it is still tainted with the residue of the institution that the state’s first settlers knew was a sin.

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