The importance of telling local history

This week in North Philly Notes, we premiere a new video promting Lucy Maddox’s The Parker Sistersand Maddox explains what prompted her to research this local border kidnapping, and why this remarkable story resonates still today. 

 

Shortly after the publication of Annette Gordon-Reed’s important book on Thomas Jefferson and his slave family, The Hemingses of Monticello, I heard Gordon-Reed give a talk about her book.

After the talk, I asked her where she thought the study of slavery ought to go next. What needed to be done? Where should historians be focusing their attention? She gave the question some thought before saying, firmly, “Local history.” It was exactly the answer I had been hoping for, and all the reinforcement I needed to set me off on the research that led eventually to The Parker Sisters.

I had spent my career teaching and writing about literature, and increasingly I found that I was most interested in the historical contexts for the literature. I wanted to shift my focus and write about history; I especially wanted to find the people and stories that had been buried and were in danger of being lost. That is, I wanted to write local history.

The place where I now live on the Eastern Shore of Maryland has a long and complex history, much of it unexplored—especially the history of African Americans in the area. It was inviting, and I plunged in, beginning by ransacking the library at the local historical society. There is a lot in the history that many people wouldn’t mind forgetting; Maryland had been, after all, a slave state, with all the shameful and painful history that implies.

The_Parker_Sisters_emboss_smThere had also been a large population of free blacks living in the area, about whom there was very little in the way of written records. I wanted to know what life was like for both slaves and free blacks, what became of them, how they negotiated life in a state that had been decidedly pro-slavery. In the course of reading newspapers from the period, I came across a few tantalizing details about a man from the Eastern Shore who had kidnapped two free black sisters in Pennsylvania and sold them to a slave dealer in Baltimore.

As I found more details, I became more intrigued by this story and more aware of how this single episode reached out to and illuminated the larger history of mid-nineteenth-century America, a country being ripped apart by the vicious politics of slavery. The man who kidnapped the Parker sisters had kidnapped others before. Living close to the border between a slave state and a free state, he could cross that border easily, capture someone he had identified as a good candidate, and hustle his victim back across the border and down to Baltimore, which had become a major slave-exporting center. He was known as a kidnapper. He had a reputation. Free blacks who lived anywhere near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border were frightened of him and of others who were also attracted to the profits of kidnapping.

Many black people in the border area simply disappeared, some of them forever, taking their stories with them. However, because the story of the Parker sisters involved the unsolved murder of a white man, their case had been followed by newspapers in Maryland and Pennsylvania and beyond, so theirs was a story that could be retrieved, preserved, and even put back into the larger narrative of racial politics in the United States. The real draw of the Parkers’ story for me was that it grounded history in a specific time and place; it provided names and even a few faces to flesh out the generalizations and statistics that were readily available. I knew about the kidnappings of free black people—but, as it turned out, I didn’t know very much.

The more I learned about the appalling treatment of the Parker sisters and other kidnap victims, the more I focused on specific details and particular people, no matter how seemingly insignificant, the better I understood the history that produced both the Parkers and their kidnapper.

The recent accounts of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officials resonate with the Parkers’ story in ways that might make us wonder how we could have been so deaf for so long. We knew about the kidnappings in the nineteenth century, just as we knew about the disproportionate number of black people who have been incarcerated or who have died in altercations with the police or in police custody. We had heard the statistics, both kinds, many times. But I don’t think we really knew what the numbers meant until we learned the names of people who died, saw their faces, listened to their families talk about them, and began to hear something of their stories. It’s important that their stories, like the Parkers’, don’t get lost.

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