In the sleepy town of Ripley, Ohio, the John Parker house is about to get an upgrade. You’ve probably never heard of him, but he was a savior for a particular segment of society in the 19th century.
As an entrepreneur and businessman, he could have sat on his achievements. But his past spurred him to make a difference in the lives of escaping enslaved people.
Today we’ll look at the life and legacy of John P. Parker and why his home in Ripley has potential as a National Park Area.
Let’s check it out!
John Parker’s House on the Underground Railroad May Become a National Park
The Parker House overlooks the Ohio River along the Kentucky/Ohio border in Ripley. A former stop on the Underground Railroad, the home is already designated as a National Historic Landmark. Since 1997, the John P. Parker historical society has pushed for the preservation and recognition of this important site.
Congress’s 2023 Omnibus Spending Package includes a bipartisan provision changing the site’s status. Some key lawmakers ensured the legislation made it to the light of day. The spending package doesn’t automatically upgrade this historical spot, though. It does fund a commission to study the possible change to a National Park Area under the NPS.
A change in status allows for funding to preserve the home forever. Further, it provides funding for educational resources to be developed.
This recognition is well overdue for a man who impacted the lives of thousands.
What Was the Underground Railroad?
Enslaved people in the United States always sought liberation. Before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Underground Railroad didn’t exist in an organized way. Freedom seekers had some help along the way, but in the 1850s, things shifted to high gear.
The Fugitive Slave Act provided for the return of escaped people to the south, and abolitionists saw the risk. Organizers created the Underground Railroad as a way to ensure the safety and success of freedom seekers. Starting at the point of enslavement, conductors guided rescued people to safety.
John Parker, himself a formerly enslaved person, along with fellow abolitionist John Riley, provided haven in Ohio to freedom seekers. Using existing natural paths like rivers, lakes, trails, and mountains, conductors moved people along. Abolitionist-owned homes and businesses served as stopping points along the way to safety.
Until the end of the Civil War, conductors like Harriet Tubman guided over 100,000 people to freedom and a better life.
Pro Tip: Learn more about the new national park that the U.S. got in 2022.
Who Was John P. Parker?
John P. Parker was best known as an inventor and industrialist. Born in 1827 to an enslaved woman, this hero’s journey was anything but easy. By the time of his death in 1900, he owned the largest foundry in Ohio.
Tracking the improbable life of John Parker is inspirational and heartbreaking. He built a career and legacy as a brilliant industrialist through hard work and ingenuity. His contributions to industry supported his work as an abolitionist, where he risked his life to save his fellow man.
Let’s take a closer look at his legacy to understand why preserving it matters.
Born around 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia, Parker’s mother told him his father was one of the Virginia aristocrats. At eight, he found himself in strange hands after his enslaver sold him to a plantation in Richmond, Virginia. Six months later, slavers marched him to Mobile, Alabama, and sold him to a doctor.
The prominent Mobile physician doctor had two sons who taught Parker to read and write. Even though they violated the law to do so, the boys brought books to young John from their father’s library. During this time, he developed a love for the works of Shakespeare and other English poets.
In the early 1840s, after a failed apprenticeship at an iron foundry, the physician planned to sell John as a farm hand. Instead, Elizabeth Ryder, one of the doctor’s patients, purchased Parker and allowed him to buy his freedom.
Using wages from his foundry jobs, he purchased his release in 1845 for $1800.
After purchasing his independence in 1845, Parker moved around a bit before settling in Ohio. He met and married a free-born woman, Miranda Boulden, in 1848 in Cincinnati before settling in Ripley. They had six children together, who all graduated from college. Ripley was a center of the abolitionist movement, which was on the rise, and the family joined in.
Over the years, when the Underground Railroad was active, John guided hundreds of enslaved people to freedom. Each time he went into Kentucky, he risked his life, especially once the Confederates placed a $1000 bounty on his head. Parker and his wife protected themselves, in part, by never posing for a photograph.
With the Civil War over, the family focused on building business interests. Bringing on a partner, Parker bought a foundry and machine manufacturing facility. After a fire in the original facility, he rebuilt, and in 1890 the Phoenix Foundry opened.
Before he died, this man, born enslaved, saw his children enter the middle class as free-born individuals. His home stands as a monument to the power of hope.
How Many Enslaved People Did John Parker Help?
John Parker served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad almost as soon as he moved to Ripley, Ohio. At one point, he kept records detailing every person he helped across the river. One of his most daring rescues involved breaking into an enslaver’s house to save a baby hostage.
More stories like this likely happened, but the abolitionist destroyed his records when he became a wanted man. After that, he still crossed into Kentucky but didn’t keep logs, so he couldn’t be held legally responsible.
While we don’t have exact numbers, it’s a safe bet that he saved over 400 individuals during his time as a conductor.
Is John Parker’s House Restored?
In the mid-1990s, the John P. Parker Historical Society was formed to preserve his memory and home. After decades of disrepair and neglect, society members came together to purchase the home. It wasn’t the first time preservationists tried to buy the house. They’d been working since the 1960s with that goal in mind.
After purchasing the home in 1993, architect Bruce Goetzman came in to help restore the house. Goetzman, an expert from the University of Cincinnati, found materials to match the original structure. He worked to maintain as much of the original design as he could.
Now, the house is a museum dedicated to the memory and legacy of John P. Parker. It still has some of the original flooring and parts of the foundry intact.
You can visit the site from May 1 through the first weekend in October each year. Tours run Fridays and Saturdays from 10 am to 5 pm and Sundays from 1 pm to 5 pm.
Pro Tip: Looking for some solitude? Use these tips on 5 Ways to Avoid National Park Crowds.
Celebrating an American Hero
The National Park Service continues recognizing new sites with a more complex view of American history. With the signing of the spending package into law, funds are finally available to remember this American patriot.
As a “hotbed of abolitionist activity,” the city of Ripley” was a focal point for a vital part of our history. We look forward to adding the John P. Parker House to our National Park list and can’t wait to visit.
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