Allen Parker’s Recollections of Slavery Times is one of the most important historical accounts of slavery and antebellum life on the North Carolina coast. Today, as we approach its 125th anniversary, I want to talk about Parker, Recollections and a special group of students that I taught when I was a visiting professor at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.
The story is riveting. Parker was born in bondage at Martinique, a plantation in Rockyhock, a rural community east of the Chowan River and north of the Albemarle Sound.
That was in 1838. For the first 24 years of his life, he was held captive and hired out to different local white men a year at a time, almost as if he was a mule or a plow.
Parker was a slave laborer in Rockyhock, Smalls Crossroads and several other little communities in that northern part of Chowan County– and on one occasion, in Perquimans County, just to the east.
When Parker was young, enslaved African Americans like him made up the large majority of Chowan County’s population.
Along with Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which is now widely considered a classic of 19th-century American literature, Parker’s Recollections is one of only two known narratives that give voice to the experience of Chowan County’s black majority before the Civil War.
His narrative covers the years from his birth until the Civil War, when he fled from his owner, made his way to the Chowan River and escaped from slavery on a Union gunboat.
On gaining his freedom, he enrolled immediately in the U.S. Navy and served aboard vessels active on the North Carolina coast.
After the Civil War, Parker settled in Worcester, Mass. He was making his living as a popcorn and candy peddler there when Recollections of Slavery Times was published in 1895.
Discovering Allen Parker
I first found a copy of Parker’s Recollections at the Illinois State Historical Library (now part of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum) in Springfield, Ill. That was sometime in the 1990s, when I was just a young thing.
I don’t know how that copy of Recollections got to Illinois, but it was there. Copies of Parker’s little book are very rare: few were printed, and few people noticed its publication outside of Worcester.
For one of my essays in Coastwatch, I wrote a piece on Parker’s Recollections that I called “The Book of Nature.”
In “The Book of Nature,” I drew on Parker’s words to look at how enslaved African Americans used their knowledge of the coastal environment as a means of survival and resistance.
My title came from chapter six of Parker’s book. At the time, he was discussing the enslaved men and women that he had known on the North Carolina coast when he was young:
Being out of doors a great deal of the time, and having no books, they learned many things from the book of Nature, which were unknown to white people, notwithstanding their knowledge of books. And it often happened that the master would be guided by the slave as to the proper time to plant his corn, sow his grain, or harvest his crops, and many things of this kind, which were to the master a source of care and anxiety, seemed to come to the slave as it were by instinct and not often did they made mistake in their prophecies.
You can find my essay “The Book of Nature” at N.C. Sea Grant’s archive of Coastwatch stories here.
The Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project is Born
The most important scholarly work on Parker’s Recollection, though, was not done by me, but by an extraordinary group of my students when I was a visiting professor at East Carolina University.
In the fall of the year 2000, I taught a seminar at ECU called “The Slave Narrative in American History.” Early in the semester, the students accepted my challenge to use the seminar as a historical workshop in which they would produce the first scholarly edition of Parker’s work.
They did so by creating a remarkable website that they called the Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project.
(One of the students in the seminar turned out to be a professional and very skilled web designer: she built and maintained the website.)
The students came up with the idea for the website. They needed a platform where all their discoveries could come together in one place, and they didn’t want to wait for the next class session to share their research findings with one another.
Everything moved faster and more efficiently because we had the web site.
Only later did the students and I realize the website’s full potential: by the end of that semester, they had put a complete copy of Parker’s Recollections of Slavery Times on line, making it available to scholars and the general public around the world for the first time.
You can find the web site for the Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project here.
But they did much more, too. By clicking on highlighted terms on their website’s version of Parker’s Recollections, you can discover in-depth scholarly annotations that feature the results of their research on the people, places and events that Parker mentioned in his narrative.
Those scholarly annotations make Recollections an even better resource for understanding Parker’s life and the history of African American slavery on the North Carolina coast.
On the website, you can also learn about his life after the Civil War, when he was a free man and made his home in Worcester. In Recollections, he does not really discuss that part of his life in any detail.
On their website, the students also compiled maps, photographs, timelines , a resource page and copies of historical documents.
Travels from Edenton to Worcester
Most of the seminar participants were undergraduates and had not previously done archival research.
Yet they were undaunted. They began by tracking Parker’s life in census documents at Joyner Special Collections at ECU and in wills, estate records, deeds and other public documents at the State Archives in Raleigh.
That was all the research that I had planned to require of them– but it was not enough for the students.
They just kept going. On their own, they did additional research at the State Archives, at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill and at the Chowan County Courthouse in Edenton.
One of the students even visited the National Archives in Washington, DC to look at military records related to Parker’s escape and his service in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War.
With the help of a small grant from ECU’s College of Arts and Sciences, another student went all the way to Worcester, Mass.
Determined to learn more about Parker’s later life, she made the trip in order to search church records, death certificates, city directories, cemetery files and other historical documents.
All of the students in that class were amazing– a professor’s dream. Each of the students seemed to have a special gift– dogged determination, a passion for genealogy, something– that they could contribute to the rest of the class.
Above all, they wanted to do right by Parker. They were determined to treat him with the respect and scholarly rigor that he deserved– and they did.
One of my favorite moments in that class was when a group of the students traveled to Rockyhock and found Martinique, the plantation where Parker was born and where his mother Millie is buried.
As they did throughout the Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project, the students took the lead in finding Martinique.
I don’t think I even knew they had gone to Rockyhock until they showed up at the next class session bubbling with excitement over what they had discovered.
Those students later led a class field trip to Martinque and other parts of Chowan County. That was a special day: no scholar had previously known where Parker had been enslaved and lived so much of his early life, and the students had figured it out based on clues in Recollections.
That day they truly felt like historians for the first time, and I could not have been happier.
Allen Parker Remembered
All that happened nearly 20 years ago. But even after all these years, I am still impressed by what that group of ECU students accomplished and how much they contributed to our understanding of North Carolina’s coastal history.
By all accounts, they were successful. Their website won awards. Over the last two decades, multitudes of people have viewed the site and come to know Parker’s Recollections through their work.
And while the style of the website might seem a bit dated these days– it is almost 20 years old now, after all– the information on the website is not. The Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project remains the most important scholarly treatment of Parker and Recollections to date.
I hope you will take the time to check out the Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project and come to know the work of that special group of ECU students. You can find the website’s home page here, a brief introduction to the site that I wrote here and the full text of Recollections, along with the scholarly annotations, here.
The students in that ECU seminar were:
Dayna S. Dunn
Joyce Joines Newman
The Allen Parker Slave Narrative Project also includes lesson plans for teachers that might want to use Parker’s Recollections in their classrooms.
One of Dr. Joy Stapleton’s graduate classes at ECU’s School of Education designed that part of the website. Those students included:
Well done, team. Happy 20th Anniversary!