The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping
by Lucy Maddox
Superficially, it's just another pat nineteenth-century abolitionist polemic: a heartwarming--if patronising-- story of wrongs committed by slave-owning Southerners and brave (white) Northerners fighting for the justice and freedom of their black neighbors. However, the realities that underlie the Parker sisters' kidnapping are far murkier: not only did its notoriety stem almost solely from the death of a white man rather than the kidnappings themselves, but one of the kidnapped girls didn't want to return; she preferred slavery to "freedom" in the North. It's an unsettling story. Maybe that's why it's been so comprehensively forgotten.
The kidnapping and its aftermath are both a product and a perfect exemplar of its time. By 1851, tensions between North and South, and between Pennsylvania and Maryland in particular, were reaching flashpoint. While most Pennsylvanians rejected the term "abolitionist"-- it seems to have picked up the same negative extremist connotations that "feminist" has today-- they also wanted no part in the slavecatching business. In fact, Pennsylvanian law originally made it illegal for anyone except a constable with a warrant to apprehend an escaped slave. Even when this law was declared unconstitutional in 1842, Pennsylvania made it illegal to hold slaves in their jails and prohibited police, magistrates, and judges from assisting in the recapture of fugitive slaves. And then the new Fugitive Slave Act stripped the state of even this power: under the act, new commissioners decided cases without giving the accused an opportunity to speak on their own behalf. Given that they were paid twice as much to find in favour of the slavecatchers, it's unsurprising that only about 6% of the cases found in favor of the defense. Marylanders celebrated while Pennsylvanians fumed.
Slavecatchers doubled their efforts, abducting fugitive slaves and free blacks with equal ruthlessness. These aggressions brought out the militant side of both free Pennsylvanians and escaped slaves. As Maddox puts it,
"Racial equality had no place in their world, but neither did the kidnapping of "their" black people."
Some, like William Parker, set up vigilante groups that used the "Lynch Code" to combat kidnappers. In 1851, Parker's group fought back against a Maryland slavecatching party, leading to the so-called "Christiana Riot" in which the slaveholder was killed. The slaveholder quickly became a Maryland martyr, while Pennsylvania courts swiftly acquitted most of the "rioters." In Maryland, acquittals in a case where "A white slaveholder had died at the hands of a crowd of black men" was an outrage and a travesty of justice. Into this powder keg stumbled Rachel and Elizabeth Parker, their kidnappers, and Joseph Miller, white "benefactor" of Rachel and the only fatality in the case. Yet again, tensions between Pennsylvania and Maryland exploded:
"Black people had been hustled out of the county by slave catchers and kidnappers for years, and white people had been chasing after them to bring them back, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But for one of those white people to die--in the process of doing what most in the county considered the right thing--was another matter altogether."
No matter which side of the Mason-Dixon line you were on, it wasn't black lives that mattered.
Not only did the book give me a clearer sense of the seething tensions of the 1850s; it is also dramatic in its own right. Quite a bit of the story is spent on Joseph Miller's mysterious death. With all the twists and startling revelations in court, it felt very much like an episode of Law and Order. However, my major discontent is that it is primarily a story of white Pennsylvanians versus white Marylanders. For most of the story, the Parker sisters are trapped in prison, yet very little pagetime is spent on their experiences or their family's. Although the story's catalyst centers two African-American sisters, they and the other black citizens are stripped of agency and silenced by those around them.
Yet even so, Elizabeth Parker defies our expectations. Reporters of the time
"Tried to create a story which 'confirms a simplified, safe, and reductive version of the antislavery message: liberty is always sweet, even to those who are low, poor, and black.'"
Rachel's story is in some ways the story the North very much wants to promulgate: the kindly white citizens banded together, putting fortunes and life in jeopardy, to protect their African-American neighbors. Rachel, who was later eulogized as (gag) a "trusted, faithful servant, after the manner of the colored Mammy of the South", is given basically no voice in the story but seems to have been acquiescent throughout.
However, Elizabeth so preferred her life as a slave in New Orleans that she didn't want to come home to "freedom." Admittedly, her experience was unusual: rather than suffering the terrible exertions and vicious punishments of plantation life, she was purchased by a shopkeeper to sell flowers, milk, and candy. She had a soft bed, good food, the companionship of girls her own age. She was praised for her abilities and enjoyed the novel experiences of dances and the theatre. Was it really a surprise that she hesitated to return to an unloving mother, cold neighbors, and uncertain and onerous employment? Given how little control Elizabeth had over her life in Pennsylvania, her story begs the question of how free the free blacks in the North actually were. In the mid-nineteenth century, not even fiercely abolitionist Quakers believed in real equality. Black families in Pennsylvania tended to be ripped apart, with young children acting as live-in servants in widely-dispersed white homes. As Maddox says, it was a
"Twilight zone between slavery and freedom."
Perhaps Elizabeth's free life was especially bad and her life as a slave especially good, but her story certainly provides a startling contrast with stories such as Solomon Northup's. The story was both educational and entertaining, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in this period or the deep tensions running between North and South. Yet I couldn't help but find it both depressing and ironic that Maddox's narrative sheds so little illumination on the personalities of Rachel and Elizabeth. Even in their own story, their voices are lost in the telling of the tale.
~~I received a copy of this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Temple University Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the narrative as a whole.~~