According to historian Wilbur H. Siebert, there were at least twenty-three ports of entry for freedom seekers along the Ohio riverfront, and Ripley was an active Underground Railroad stop.
Overlooking the Ohio River in Ripley, the John P. Parker House is now a small museum devoted to sharing the story of Parker’s life and the abolitionist movement.
Born into slavery in Norfolk, VA in 1827, John P. Parker was sold at age 8 to a Mobile, Alabama family that, though it was illegal, taught him to read and write, and allowed him to apprentice in an iron foundry, where he was compensated and permitted to keep some of his earnings. At 18, he used this money to purchase his freedom.
Parker moved north and married Miranda Boulden. The couple settled in Ripley in 1847, where he built and operated the Phoenix Foundry and Machine Company. Patenting a number of inventions, Parker was one of only a few 19th century African Americans to obtain a US patent.
His riverfront house, still standing, was once part of an "integrated residential and manufacturing establishment," including the home, machine shop, foundry, blacksmith shop, and several sheds. The business manufactured a wide selection of items including threshing machines, portable engines, reapers, plows, iron frames for school house seats, sugar mills, and steam engines. Some of these items were patented by Parker.
In the 1880s, he said of his home that it "has heard the gentle tapping of fugitives. It also has heard the cursing at the door of the angry masters. It too has played its part in concealing men and women seeking a haven of safety. Standing, facing the river, it has weathered the storms of years, very much better than its owner and builder. But we have seen adventurous nights together, which I am glad to say, will never come again."
Though busy with his business, Parker was also active in the Underground Railroad and is believed to have helped over 1,000 enslaved people to escape north from the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Unlike some of his abolitionist peers, he repeatedly traveled into Kentucky, actively searching for freedom seekers and safely bringing them north. He tended not to offer up his own home to freedom seekers.
One well known incident involved Parker traveling down to the plantation of S.L. Sroufe in Bracken County, Kentucky to aid in the escape of a freedom-seeking couple. They had planned to bring their baby but aroused the suspicion of their master, who took the child into his bedroom to deter their flight. Parker snuck into the bedroom and grabbed the baby to be reunited with the parents.
Parker was not very outspoken about his views, though he expressed them in his memoirs. "It was not the physical part of slavery that made it cruel and degrading, it was the taking away from a human being the initiative of thinking, of doing his own ways.... [T]here was not so much brutality in slavery as one might expect. It was an incident to the curse, but the real injury was the making of a human being an animal without hope."
Once the freedom seekers arrived in Ripley, Parker would deliver them to Underground Railroad conductors in the town, such as Presbyterian minister John Rankin, who would hide them and help move them to the next "station" on the railroad. As Parker recalled, "[i]n the main my work was to continuously get the fugitives out of town."
In 1889, a fire destroyed parts of Parker's compound, and he moved his business to a nearby site. The John P. Parker Memorial Park next to the house was once the site of the business. It contains several interpretive panels about Parker's life.
In the 1880s, Parker recounted his life as an Underground Railroad conductor in a series of interviews with journalist Frank M. Gregg. These interviews have recently been edited by Stuart Seely Sprague and published as His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad.
Parker's iron foundry enterprise was active until his death in 1900. His will forbade his children from carrying on the business, and instead encouraged them to pursue higher education and "the attainment of learned professions." All the Parker children attended college. The daughters became music teachers.
A few years after his death, his widow Miranda and daughters Portia and Bianca moved to the Cincinnati area, first to Norwood and then to Madisonville.
The John P. Parker House, built circa 1853 and recently restored, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is located at 300 Front St. in Ripley, less than an hour from Cincinnati.