RIPLEY, Ohio – Ripley was once home to one of the largest abolitionist communities in the United States.
Confederate General John Hunt Morgan once called it an “abolitionist hellhole,” and that was in no small part thanks to the work of John P. Parker.
Parker was born in 1827 to a white father and a black mother in Norfolk, Va.
“We believe his father to be a slaveholder,” said Dewey Scott, docent of the John P. Parker House in Ripley. “If indeed he was, he sold his son into slavery at the tender young age of eight.”
Parker was sold again to an industrious slaveholding group in Richmond, Va., which was “going south” to cash in on booming crops such as cotton, indigo and tobacco.
According to Scott, groups such as these would buy up all the slaves coming into the United States and take them into the Deep South, selling them to plantation owners at a profit.
Parker was sold in Mobile, Ala., to a doctor. He took care of the horses and drove the doctor around.
When he was with the doctor, Parker was taught how to read and write by the doctor’s children. According to Scott, this was seen as a very taboo act as slaveholders thought an educated slave could lead to problems down the road.
“He became a person of very, very high intelligence,” Scott said. “But he never ever set foot in a classroom.”
After several attempts to escape, he found a local woman in New Orleans, Elizabeth Ryder, who was willing to purchase him.
“They signed a deal,” Scott said. “He was to pay her $1,800 for his freedom.”
According to Scott, Parker worked hard and paid Ryder the money in its entirety in a year and a half.
“John was so happy to gain his freedom that he was simply elated,” Scott said. “He went home and stitched his freedom papers into a shirt so he did not lose them.”
Parker made his way out of the south and to Albany, Ind. He hoped to gain a job in one of the foundries opening in the area.
According to Scott, Parker grew bored in Albany and sought adventure by moving to Cincinnati. There he met a barber from Maysville.
The man was a freedman who was found to be helping slaves escape to Ohio.
“The City Fathers found out about that and asked him to leave,” Scott said. “And they weren’t very nice about it.”
When the barber became Parker’s roommate, he sowed the seeds of the Underground Railroad into his mind.
Parker married a woman from Cincinnati and moved to Ripley after, where he began his work on the Underground Railroad.
Ripley was part of The Corridor, according to Scott.
“It’s generally from Maysville all the way to Madison, Ind.,” Scott said.
According to Scott, Ripley was one of the largest stops on the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses established during the early to mid-19th century and used by African-Americans to escape to freedom.
In the Ripley area during the time of Parker, there were 329 members of the Underground Railroad.
“Nowhere in the United States would you have found an abolitionist society that large,” Scott said.
According to Carol Stivers, president of the John P. Parker Historical Society, Ripley was very unusual.
“We can’t explain why Parker was never turned in even though a lot suspected him,” Stivers said.
Unlike fellow Underground Railroad participant John Rankin, Parker was an extractor.
The most famous extractor of the time period is probably Harriet Tubman, who extracted slaves from Virginia.
Like Tubman, Parker would venture into Kentucky to bring fugitive slaves into Ohio.
“There are very, very few extractors in our history for extracting was extremely dangerous,” Scott said. “You see, if John had been caught in Kentucky doing this, there would have been only one question, and that would be ‘Who’s got a rope?’”
According to Scott, John was never caught. He never lost a fugitive.
Parker would hand his fugitives off to conductors such as Rankin who would help fugitives get further north or into Canada.
“There’s not been a whole lot of evidence to suggest John Parker working with Rankin,” Scott said. “Although we do believe that he did, and the Ohio Historical Society does record a time that John Parker actually saved the life of Rev. Rankin.”
According to Scott, Parker would use knowledge gained through the grapevine to find out rumors of escaped slaves in Kentucky. He would then investigate further and try to find the escaped slaves to help them across the Ohio River to freedom.
The main route Ripley liked to use to get fugitives further north, according to Scott, was through Red Oak, Ohio.
“They could take fugitives up to Red Oak by wagon or horseback and be back in time to protect their homes come morning lights,” Scott said. “That’s when the slave catchers would come across looking for their wares.”
According to Scott, even suspicion of helping fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad was enough to have one’s property burned to the ground.
“There was no court of law,” Scott said. “There were no questions asked.”
The Parker House today stands as a museum to the man who once called it home for 50 years. Exhibits of his three U.S. patents are on display, as well as histories of his life and the Underground Railroad. A model 1800s bedroom is also available, where one can stand on the floors on which Parker stood, and look out onto the same Ohio River he once gazed upon.
According to Stivers, their goal is always to get more attendance.
“We have lots of local school groups and international tours come,” Stivers said.
Stivers also said that the museum got a $15,000 grant from the Hayswood Foundation to help build a barn near the house in order to store some of Parker’s inventions that are too large to be displayed inside.
The Parker House is open to the public May through October on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.