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William Parker, fl. 1851
The Freedman's Story: In Two Parts
: The Atlantic Monthly, vol. XVII, Feb. 1866, pp. 152-166; Mar. 1866, pp. 276-295., .


William Parker is best known for leading the 1851 Christiana Riot, a violent altercation between a group of fugitive slaves and slave catchers that resulted in the death of one of the latter. Almost all that is known about Parker comes from The Freedman's Story, originally published in the February and March 1866 issues of the Atlantic Monthly. Parker was born into slavery around 1822 in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Parker's father is not mentioned in the Story, and his mother died when he was young, leaving him in the care of his grandmother. Parker's master, Major William Brogdon, also died when Parker was young. After his death, his farm was divided among his brothers. Afraid of being sold and refusing to be beaten by his new master, David Brogdon, Parker began planning an escape with his brother Charles. This plan eventually succeeded, and the two settled near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Once there, Parker quickly helped form "an organization for mutual protection against slaveholders and kidnappers" in order to prevent the recapture of escaped slaves (p. 161). On September 11, 1851, Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch attempted, with the aid of a warrant and a deputy U.S. Marshal, to retrieve four of his escaped slaves from Parker's home. The riot and violence that ensued left Gorsuch dead and many injured. Parker was forced to flee to Canada, where he was joined by his wife, Eliza Ann Elizabeth Howard, also a fugitive. Parker bought land in the Buxton Settlement in Canada and remained there at the time of the publication of his narrative. The settlement, located between Lake Erie and the Great Western Railroad, often served as the terminus of the Underground Railroad. The date and circumstances of Parker's death are unknown.

Both parts of Parker's narrative are prefaced by the writings of a white editor, "E.K.," whose full name is never given. E.K. writes of Parker that he is "the principal actor in the Christiana Riot," which "cost the Government of the United States fifty thousand dollars, embittered the relations of two ‘Sovereign States,'" aroused Northern anger regarding the Fugitive Slave Law, and helped move the country toward civil war (p. 152). From this, E.K. concludes that Parker "must be a man, even if his complexion be that of the ace of spades" (p. 152). E.K. finds little literary value in Parker's words, but he does argue that Parker is a "doer," one whose manhood should not be questioned (p. 153).

Parker's own words describe a desolate childhood. After the death of his mother, Louisa Simms, Parker is left in the care of his grandmother, who loves him but who is rarely in the quarters since she works in the fields. Once Parker is given to David Brogden, he begins planning to escape with his brother, but waits for something—"A cross word, a blow, a good fright"—that will "exonerate" their escape (p. 157). The brothers are provided the justification they seek when Brogdon attempts to beat Parker with a stick after Parker refuses to work in the rain. Parker resists this treatment, and badly injures Brogdon in the ensuing struggle. Parker and his brother then escape to the woods.

After many close calls, the brothers find their way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Parker hears abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass speak there, and he helps form a mutual protection society with other escaped slaves who resolve "to prevent any of our brethren being taken back into slavery, at the risk of our own lives" (p. 161). A large part of Parker's narrative focuses on his work in this society, including the rescue of a girl working for a local member of the Society of Friends. Kidnappers attempt to claim she is their property, but Parker and his aids are quickly alerted. They overtake the kidnappers, rescue the girl, and "beat the kidnappers" (p. 163). Parker later learns that "two of them died in Lancaster" (p. 163).

Parker's society does not only chase kidnappers, they also seek revenge on those who betray the escaped slaves. When Parker learns that Allen Williams, a local townsman, betrayed a fugitive, he and his society "resolved that he should die" (p. 165). Williams is badly beaten but escapes. Parker's group executes a similar attack on another betrayer, but he, too, escapes by running "as if the spirit of his evil deeds was after him" (p. 166).

Part II of the narrative is prefaced by E.K. who attempts to delineate the main events of the Christiana riot. E.K. writes that Mr. Edward Gorsuch of Maryland obtained warrants to arrest four of his escaped slaves. A small posse arrives in Christiana, outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where both Parker and the escaped slaves are believed to be living. Gorsuch and his men attempt to enter the home and retrieve the slaves, but Parker and the men inside resist. Someone sees the men outside of Parker's home and raises the alarm. Many men arrive in support of Parker, and violence breaks out. Gorsuch is killed and others are badly wounded; all of those arrested in connection with the riot are eventually acquitted, a development that E.K. reads as a condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Parker himself gives a more detailed account of the riot, claiming that he told the men within his house "not to be afraid, nor to give up to any slaveholder, but to fight until death" and describes how his wife is shot at after she blows a horn to summon aid (p. 283). Parker intimates that at least two of Gorsuch's slaves are in fact in his house, but he refuses to yield them. When one of his own men becomes frightened and threatens to give in, Parker tells him that "if he attempted it, I should be compelled to blow out his brains." (p. 286). Parker eventually moves outside to continue the standoff, and states that "we numbered but ten, while there were between thirty and forty of the white men" (p. 286). Describing the violence that occurs, Parker notes that all but Gorsuch fell easily or ran while "Old Mr. Gorsuch was the bravest of his party" (p. 287). Parker claims that Gorsuch's slave "struck him the first and second blows; then three of four sprang upon him" but once weakened, it was the women who "put an end to him" (p. 288).

After the riot, Parker vows not to be taken alive and quickly makes his way to Canada. Two months after arriving there, Parker is joined by his wife but not his children; the Story never indicates if he is reunited with his children. Parker secures fifty acres in the Buxton settlement where he still lives at the time of his narrative's publication. Parker's narrative, unique in its detailing of violent and repeated resistance to slavery, inspired other texts, including Margaret Hope Bacon's history, Rebellion at Christiana (1975), and even a children's book, William Parker: Rebel Without Rights (1996).

Works Consulted: Bacon, Margaret Hope, Rebellion at Christiana, New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1975; Bland Jr., Sterling Lecater, "Parker, William," The African American National Biography, eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 243-244; Nichols, Charles H., Black Men in Chains: Narratives by Escaped Slaves, New York: Lawrence Hill and Co., 1972; Rosenburg, John, William Parker: Rebel Without Rights, New York: Millbrook Press, 1996.

Meredith Malburne

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