Mae Bertha and her husband, Matthew, guided their children through the worst days with a courage and faith that was the heart of the civil rights movement, but they could not have done it alone. Through civil rights workers like Constance Curry, word was spread, and people of goodwill in many places became sources of support for the Carters.
Here, for instance, is what happened when the overseer ploughed under the Carters' cotton crop before they could pick it:
"Even with no money from the cotton crop, the Carters were able to survive November and December. Amzie Moore [a black veteran who had come home and helped organize a local NAACP branch] brought food, the Boulder Friends [in Colorado] continued to send lunch money, the AFSC sent small grants, the Morningside Gardens Civil Rights Committee in New York City contributed clothing and money, and some canned foods came from a church in New Jersey." And on the day when the overseer did not show up with the family's customary $15 for their car's annual license plate fee, "Fannie Lou Hamer, by then a leader in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, brought Mae Bertha the tag money."
Reading this book is a reminder of the deep interconnectedness of our lives, of the power of conscience when people care about and for each other, and are willing to act with love against the force of hatred and violence. Seven of the eight Carter children who desegregated the schools of Drew later graduated from the University of Mississippi, where the first black student to enroll needed an escort of U.S. marshals. The spirit that sustained them was expressed in a letter from Mae Bertha to Constance Curry in May 1966: "I went to church on Sunday and my preacher preach about love one another--it don't mean Negro only--it means everybody, white and black."
If civil rights seems like ancient history to today's students, it's hard to imagine anything that would rescue the abolitionists and their Underground Railroad from the dustbin of our history. But His Promised Land, The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad is the book to do just that. This is an amazing tale, told by the elderly Parker in the 1880s to a Southern newspaperman, and never published until now. The manuscript, dusted off from the Duke University archives, begins with Parker, only 8 years old, being marched in chains from Virginia to Alabama, on a mountain trail full of flowering azaleas and mountain laurels: "Every thing," he would recall, "seemed to be gay except myself. Picking up a stick, I struck at each flowering shrub, taking delight in smashing down particularly those in bloom. That was my only revenge on things that were free."
Parker's account is always vivid, often violent, and told with a sharp eye and bold directness that makes events spring to life. An attempted escape from slavery led to several captures and brushes with death along the Mississippi; after that he convinced a Mobile, Alabama, woman to buy him and let him work in a foundry and buy his freedom with his wages. Heading for Cincinnati and then Ripley, Ohio, he began a life of nighttime forays back into slave-holding Kentucky to help fugitives escape.
As a free black man in Ripley, he ran his own ironworking business, owned his own house, married and prospered. (Parker succeeded in creating the conditions that made a better life for his six children. He was passionate about the importance of a college education; his three sons and three daughters all became teachers. The firstborn son, Hale Giddings Parker, completed the classical program at Oberlin College in 1873. One daughter, Hortense Parker, was among the first African-American graduates of Mount Holyoke College.) But he risked everything to join Ripley abolitionists in helping fugitive slaves, guiding them out of the Kentucky woods, hiding them in their houses and sending them north on the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada.
Proslavery neighbors and bounty hunters from the South suspected Parker, but never succeeded in catching him. "I never thought of going uptown without a pistol in my pocket, a knife in my belt, and a blackjack handy," he recalled. Parker tells many stories here of bravery among the fugitives, and his escapes from ambushes and shoot-outs. No Hollywood thriller could match this tale. It's the real thing.
But, like the bravery of the Carter family in Silver Rights, Parker's story is a reminder of how closely the threads of our lives are interwoven in this country. Parker's father was white; as a young slave owned by a Mobile doctor, Parker was secretly taught to read by the doctor's sons; it was a white woman who set him free; and in several near-death moments, he was saved by white men. His abolitionist allies in Ripley included both black freemen and white ministers. This book, too, stands as a monument to Parker's legacy. Royalties from His Promised Land will go to the John T. Parker Historical Society, in order to preserve Parker's house, still standing in Ripley, Ohio. Parker's story testifies that even in our most violent conflicts, conscience has no color.
Paul Trachtman is a reviewer based in rural New Mexico.