This week is my favorite week of the year.
For 17 years the Black Voice Foundation has been taking educators on an amazing journey retracing the steps of the Underground Railroad. This year we have the largest group of participants since the tour began, comprising of three Inland area districts: Victor Valley Union, San Bernardino Unified, and Moreno Valley Unified.
These educators are learning this history from our conductors, historian Dr. Daniel Walker and Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives president (and Douglass descendant) Mr. Kenneth Morris as well as from our amazing docents: Oberlin, Ohio’s Thelma Quinn Smith who celebrated her 94th birthday last week; Ken Grossi, director of the Oberlin College archives, Shannon Prince of Buxton, Ontario, Canada, and Lezlie Wells of St. Catherine’s in Canada’s Niagara region; Dr. David “Sankofa” Anderson and his wife Ruth who dramatically present the history of the freedom movement in Rochester, New York; And Jerry Gore, the energetic griot from Maysville, Kentucky, who is our longest serving guide. They are just a few of the individuals who have dedicated their lives to preserving and passing on this invaluable information so that future generations aren’t ignorant of our shared incredible past.
Today Mr. Gore shared the story of John Parker with us before we visited the Parker house in Ripley, Ohio. Parker was considered an “angel of mercy” to hundreds of freedom seekers he rescued from the South before the Civil War. For more than a decade he led a dual life, operating an iron foundry during the day and helping freedom seekers cross to the North into Ohio during the night. His courage and determination to fight the injustice of slavery, and his talents and success as a businessman in the face of discrimination, make his life one of America’s great stories.
The son of a Black man and White woman, Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1827 and was placed into slavery early in life. As a boy, he first went to Richmond, Virginia, and then was placed in chains and forced to walk with others on a grueling walk to Mobile, Alabama. His experience with this forced march forged his determination to obtain his own freedom. While still a young teenager, he was purchased by a widower in Mobile, Alabama with the understanding that he would pay back his purchase price of $1,800 to buy his freedom. He did so by apprenticing in an iron foundry, and left the South as a free man in 1845.
After moving to Ripley, Ohio Parker became deeply involved with the rescue of freedom seekers from Kentucky between 1845 and 1865. His house still stands on the stretch of the Ohio River known as the “Borderland”, the land between the North and the South where the most critical part of a freedom seeker’s journey took place. It was there that Parker gained a reputation as an unstoppable “abductor”. At night he would cross into Kentucky, join slave parties, and lead them secretly across the Ohio River into safe hands. Parker excelled at this activity and is credited with a thousand rescues during the two decades prior to the end of the Civil War.
The 50 educators and parents on this year’s trip will join the over 500 educators who have taken this same journey with us. The goal is to educate them on one of America’s important freedom movements so they can return and empower our children through education. If our students develop a “freedom consciousness” by learning about determined individuals like John Parker and others at an early age, they will learn that the pursuit of knowledge is the route to freedom and something worth fighting for.
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