Many of you may not know this, but the Academy’s Archives in the basement of Baxter Hall contains many photographs, publications, yearbooks and other items that chronicle the history of Kimball Union. For several years as archivist, I have shared different pieces of KUA’s history by email under the title, From the Archives…. As this year’s school-wide focus is legacy, it seems a fitting time to renew this practice.
Above: A few items from the KUA Archives: Left to right: A basketball scoreboard invented and made by physics teacher Wayland Porter used in the Silver Gym in the 1940s and 50s. A bonnet that belonged to Hannah Kimball, widow of founder Daniel Kimball (you can see her portrait in the library’s Class of 2014 board room). A Latin textbook written by KUA Principal Cyrus S. Richards in 1859 and returned to KUA by a former student. A track shoe worn by Charles Bacon in 1906. The spikes seem little more than nails.
For me, legacy comes to us in three stages: the past – what has been passed down; the present – what we do now; the future – what new generations will find of value in our lives. Through my archival work, I’ve become even more aware of the Academy’s overwhelming legacy, people and events from the past that connect with us today. Strangers often contact me hoping that I can share new information with them, usually about an ancestor who studied at KUA. Often, this brings an alumnus/alumna out of our silent files and into our lives where we learn more of the lives of KUA graduates.
This happened a few weeks ago when I received a letter from a library director in Ripley, Ohio, a village located along the Ohio River whose population, according to the 2010 census, was 1,750 people (even smaller than Plainfield, New Hampshire!) She was interested in a certain Bianca Parker, class of 1898, listed on-line in KUA’s General Directory (1815-1880), and wondered if we had any further information about Bianca’s time here. I confirmed that Bianca had been a student here for five years, played the violin and was a member of the women’s literary and musical group, the Minervian Society. I found Bianca’s senior portrait in the June 1898 issue of The Kimball Union, the school magazine/newspaper and, in an archival box, a class photograph plus several all school photographs (1895 and 1896).
The librarian, Ms. Gibson, was thrilled to receive the information and scans as they didn’t have a portrait of Bianca, but it turned out that her main focus was actually Bianca’s father. She wrote, “… I’m the director of a small library in rural Ohio, but we have a wealth of history here. One of our ‘heroes’ is John P. Parker, a slave that purchased his freedom and moved to Ripley, Ohio to become not only an abolitionist, but a very early African-American patent holder, businessman and firm believer in the power of education. … all his children went to higher education, for example Hortense, the oldest daughter went to Mt. Holyoke and was the first black to graduate from there in 1883.”
John Parker’s story
John Parker was born into slavery in 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia; his father was a plantation owner and his mother a slave. At the age of eight, he was sold and sent to Richmond, Virginia. To get there, he was chained to an old man who was kind to him as he saw Parker was so sad at having to leave his mother, but the old man was often beaten and later died. According to Parker’s biographer, this “set the boy on fire with hatred and the desire to gain his freedom.” Four months later, he was chained to a gang of 400 slaves marching to Mobile, Alabama. Many of them were sold along the way, but Parker completed the walk to Mobile, still just a child of eight or nine years. During his youth he often tried to escape, but was always recaptured. When he was 14, he convinced a kindly widow, that if she would buy his freedom for $1,800, he would pay her back at $10 a week with interest. She trusted him and Parker went to work in a foundry, completing his payment to the widow by age 18. He then found his way to Ripley, Ohio, as a free man.
Why is he so famous in Ripley, Ohio? Because, instead of staying safe in his village, working and raising his family, he became part of the Underground Railroad there. For years, he constantly and secretly crossed the Ohio River, at great risk to his own life, into Kentucky where he found and led many hundreds of slaves back across the river to a safe house in Ripley before they continued on their way to freedom in Canada.
Ms. Gibson wrote, “When I first contacted you, the Parker board [part of the Ripley Historical Society] was in a panic as they were having signs done for an anniversary event and wanted to list colleges the kids went to–so now Kimball Union Academy is on a plaque in the park in little old Ripley, Ohio. I am glad I can tell people it is still an active school (that keeps great records…)”
So a tiny bit of our legacy thrives in a village in Ohio because of KUA’s long history of inclusion. What makes this even more interesting and relevant to us is that at the time of Parker’s Underground Railroad work, KUA’s Principal, Cyrus S. Richards, class of 1831, was gaining a reputation throughout the Northeast as the “abolitionist principal.” Principal Richards welcomed the first African American student, Jonathan C. Gibbs, class of 1848, from Philadelphia to KUA in the fall of 1846. After 36 years as principal, Richards retired in 1871, but he did not rest on his laurels. Because of his keen interest in the welfare of emancipated slaves, he accepted a position as Dean of the Preparatory Department and Professor of Latin and Greek at Howard University in Washington, DC, a traditionally black university. Principal Richards held that position for 14 years until just before his death in 1885 at age 77. Born in Hartford, Vermont, he is buried in Mill Cemetery in Meriden, NH.
Ms. Gibson kindly sent us a copy of John Parker’s autobiography, “His Promised Land” written by Stuart Sprague from Parker’s oral tales. She also recommended Ann Hagedorn’s book, “Beyond the River” for anyone interested in the Underground Railroad and has offered to send it to us.