As we prepare to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day this month, we think not only of those escaped slaves who came north to freedom on the Underground Railroad and went to Canada, but some who stayed in the Genesee Valley.
One unique former slave was a popular personage in Mount Morris from 1848 to at least 1860. African American William H. Parker was a freed man who realized the barber profession offered a chance to succeed before the Civil War. An anonymous Mount Morris historian observed that Parker always was smiling and used language – as Parker described it – that was “supernatical.”
A specimen of his verbal creativity survives today in an advertisement from 1850:
“The elephant is in slices
And will be served to congenial friends
With most edifying...
Turtle soup and other higherglypics.
And all the necessary combatable fixings
Over D.N. Bacon’s Recess on 15 July, 1855 in
my most supernatical style.”
The Parker family was well-known in the Valley as operatives on the Underground Railroad. Parker signed his notice: “Old Bay, alias Wm. H. Parker, Chief Operator.”
Was William Parker merely a partially-educated African American with verbal imagination? Or perhaps he cooperated with Colonel Rubin Sleeper in conducting the Mount Morris Underground Railroad, perhaps Sleeper and Parker were the “chief operators” on the railroad.
Code words commonly were used to protect secrecy.
Young dreamer John Marshall of the town of Livonia was what we would call economically disadvantaged. His dream was obtaining a superior education. Born in 1831, his aptitude for books was overlooked by his widowed mother because there were 10 children who had basic needs.
Finally, the farm sacrificed so James could attend Canandaigua Academy. After three years of teaching school at Union Corners at $12 a month and summer farm labor at $6 monthly, he was admitted to Yale University. Again economic need forced him from the classroom and he peddled books throughout New England. Finally he graduated at age 25.
Next it was on to Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J.. For four years during the Civil War he served as a chaplain before his health was broken. Returning to Livingston County in 1866, he married Jeannie McNair of Elmwood, Mount Morris. A series of successful Presbyterian pulpit assignments earned promotion to president of Coe College, Iowa. Dr. Marshall moved from rags to spiritual and educational riches.
Coe was founded in 1851 as a co-ed institution. Originally it was known as a School for Prophets. Expanding in 2019, there is a Monroe Hall marking a dream fulfilled.
David W. Parish is historian for the town and village of Geneseo. He writes “Historic Geneseo” for The Livingston County News. He is a Chancellor Award retiree from Milne Library at SUNY Geneseo.
and author of 12 reference and history books.