A Ripping Good Read

When he was eight years old, John P. Parker was taken from his mother, chained to an elderly man and forced to walk from Norfolk, Virginia, to Richmond. There he saw the kindly old man whipped to death.

Then he was chained to a group of slaves and forced to walk to Mobile, Alabama. Think of it! Eight years old.

By the time he was 18, he had gained his freedom, he moved to Ohio where he worked in a foundry and for fifteen years led a double life as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, crossing into the South to bring slaves to freedom and often fighting fearlessly against their pursuers.

When the Civil War came, he liberated hundreds of slaves to serve in the Union Army.

After the War he became the owner of a foundry and a machine shop and an engine factory, and he patented a wide range of inventions including a plough, a clod buster and a tobacco shredder.

He raised a large family of successful children and his granddaugher was the first African-American graduate of Mt Holyoke College.

What a story! I’ve just started his autobiography His Promised Land, and it is one ripping good read. Parker had a visceral hated for those who were cruel to weak and helpless slaves, and he lashed out at them with anything that came to hand. As a child he escapes again and again, but even when he’s cornered, he never gives up. He’s like a feral cat.

The hounds, the swamps, the sheriffs, the jails, the chains, the beatings, his life is incredibly dramatic, and I haven’t even got to the part where he becomes a conductor.

We would probably never know John Parker’s story but for the fact that a reporter named Frank Moody Gregg had a fascination for the character of the slave Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who made her way across the breaking ice of the Ohio River with her baby in her arms.

Eliza was a lot like Anne Frank — with all the inhuman carnage and unspeakable human tragedy all around, she captured the public imagination.

So in the course of his research, Gregg found Parker and interviewed him, and this amazing book is the result.