Sunday, January 02, 2000

Restoration gives ex-slave's house new life

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Five years ago, Charles Nuckolls was as glum as everyone else over the condition of the John P. Parker house in Ripley, Ohio. But the dilapidated building has been reborn and renovated, as has interest in Mr. Parker, a former slave and iron worker credited with ferrying perhaps 400 slaves to freedom from his riverside home.

        Mr. Nuckolls, a Hamilton County board of elections worker who lives in North Avondale, was one of the original committee members interested in saving and restoring the Parker house, and he's thrilled with the progress since 1994, especially as interest grows in Cincinnati's Freedom Center and Underground Railroad museum. Now:

        • The Parker house in late October was designated an Official Project of Save America's Treasures, an umbrella of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It's now eligible for grants and special benefits.

        • If This House Could Talk, a new book by Elizabeth Smith Brownstein (Simon & Schuster; $35) includes photos and an essay on the Parker House and the John Rankin house, also in Ripley, and their roles in the Underground Railroad.

        Mr. Parker was a Virginia-born slave who learned iron working in Alabama. In 1845, he bought his freedom for $1,800, paid off at $10 a week. He eventually settled in Ripley, where his Phoenix Foundry and Machine Shop, was a major employer and patent-holder.

        “People would be amazed at how the house looks now,” Mr. Nuckolls says, describing exterior and interior renovations to the once-crumbling structure. “I'm hoping that early in 2000, we'll at least have the physical work completed inside and out.”

        Next up: application for a $17,000 Save America's Treasures grant for historical research and an archaeological dig. A cursory dig has unearthed a cast-iron angel, believed to have been made at Parker's foundry.

        “We'll go into the cistern and any outhouses, the privy, and we hope to excavate the foundry foundation, so we'll know more about the history of the iron industry in this part of the country,” he says.

        Also on tap is continued genealogy research into Mr. Parker's seven children, all of whom graduated from or attended Oberlin or Mount Holyoke colleges.

        Mr. Nuckolls is baffled by the lives of two daughters — Bianca and Portia Parker, both of whom were music teachers in Norwood in the early 1900s. Very few records exist of their lives.

        Standing on the banks of the Ohio at the Parker site, Mr. Nuckolls says, “conjures up all kinds of thoughts about the risks that this man took to help fellow slaves escape to freedom. He was an intrepid individual who risked everything because he was so imbued with living free.”

        That's what he wants visitors to carry away from the John P. Parker Historic site — that feeling of risk, dedication, accomplishment and freedom.


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