Remembering an act of bravery

Descendants of Joseph Miller return to where he left his mark on history

by John Chambless
Chester County Press
May 23, 2012

In 1851, the line between freedom and slavery was a matter of a mile or two. Nottingham, which sits just north of the Maryland state line, was the scene of a scandal that inflamed passions on both sides of the slave trade and briefly brought ordinary people into the international spotlight. Last weekend, descendants of a farmer gathered at his weathered tombstone to remember what he did to defend the cause of freedom more than 160 years ago.

But first, some history.

Joseph Miller was a farmer who lived in West Nottingham with his wife, Rebecca, and their children. In September 1851, the region was in an uproar after a Maryland slave owner, Edward Gorsuch, had come to Christiana, Pa., to retrieve four of his runaway slaves. He was killed when the men – aided by several community members – resisted. The “Christiana Riot” inflamed pro-slavery forces in Maryland, especially when those who had possibly killed Gorsuch were acquitted.

The state line was the scene of frequent raids by slave catchers who considered it their right to recapture runaway slaves and return them to Maryland for a bounty. Thomas McCreary lived in Elkton and delivered mail in northern Maryland and Lancaster County, so he knew the region well. He also held a second job as a slave catcher.

In December 1851, he had kidnapped Elizabeth Parker, a free black woman who worked for a southern Chester County family named Donnelly. In what seems to have been a set-up, she was taken by McCreary from the family’s yard, loaded into a wagon and taken to Baltimore, where she was tortured. Knowing that she was a free woman, the kidnappers wanted her to take a different name so she could be sold. She refused, but was still sold, and eventually worked in New Orleans. She maintained that she had been kidnapped and was eventually returned to Baltimore, where authorities could investigate her case. On Dec. 29, McCreary came for Elizabeth’s sister, Rachel, at the Miller farm. He dragged her away, screaming, threw her into his wagon and headed toward the state line.

Joseph Miller ran on foot to save her, eventually catching up with the wagon, but McCreary, who was armed, managed to get away. Rachel landed in a Baltimore slave auction. Miller and seven other men went after her. With the assistance of a local Quaker, they managed to get Rachel moved to the city jail, preventing her from being sold until her case could be considered. The rescue party could do no more until the case came to trial, so they were getting on the train back to Nottingham when Miller stepped out of the car to smoke a cigar. He was never seen alive again.

Not politically active or an abolitionist, Miller was captured by a mob who knew only that he had come to retrieve his servant. He was found a few days later, hanging from a tree. He was hastily buried in Baltimore, but friends came to get his body and returned it to Chester County. An autopsy showed he had been bound and tortured. His killers had forced him to drink arsenic, and his “suicide” had been hastily concocted.

The case of the Parker sisters’ kidnapping dragged through the court for a year. Eventually, a crowd of some 60 neighbors – some of whom who had known Rachel Parker all her life – testified at her trial and won freedom for both her and Elizabeth in 1853. The case made headlines not only in America, but also abroad. No one was ever convicted for Miller’s death, and the Governor of Maryland simply refused to extradite McCreary for trial in Pennsylvania. Miller was laid to rest in the cemetery of the Union Methodist Church. Eventually, the gravestones of his wife and children were put next to him. And last Saturday, a small crowd of people gathered there in honor of his sacrifice.

In a program sponsored by the West Nottingham Township Historical Commission and Chester County Facilities and Parks, descendants of Joseph Miller came from across the country to meet each other, see the state historical marker placed at the cemetery in September 2011, and learn about what Miller did so long ago.

Inside the church, the pews were full as Karen Marshall of the Chester County Facilities and Parks department thanked the many people who worked to get the marker placed last year, and those who wouldn’t let the suffering of the Parker sisters fade into history.

“This program today came about with the help of three organizations,” Marshall said. “The West Nottingham Historical Commission, the East Nottingham Historical Commission and the Oxford Area Historical Association. … We are here today to celebrating the villains, the victims and above all, the heroes of our past in order to undertand our present.” Kurt Schenk, the pastor of Union United Methodist Church, offered a prayer “for those unjustly treated and for those who risked their lives to free them.”

To give some background, Ryan Rohrer, the chairman of the West Nottingham Township Historical Commission, noted that the sign for the Parker kidnapping “was the quickest marker they ever approved,” taking less than a year from the request made to the state to the day it was put in place. Rohrer said the Parker case was noted by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her book “The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” as well as in books written in Britain. “The case clearly illustrates the intensity of the debate over slavery on the eve of the Civil War,” Rohrer said.

Shirley Whyte told the crowd that she grew up in Oxford, across the street from an elderly lady they knew as Aunt Lucy. “After she died, I found out in her obituary that she was the daughter of Rachel Parker,” Whyte said. Lucy Jones had no children of her own, but raised eight foster children. Those descendants have shown little interest in their connection to the Parker sisters kidnapping, Whyte said. Rachel’s other surviving child, Joseph, married and lived in West Chester.

After they were returned to Pennsylvania in 1853, Rachel worked for families in the Coatesville area, Whyte discovered through her research. “Elizabeth, on the other hand, moves to West Chester and sort of disappears,” she said. In an era when black families were little noticed by white society — and official record-keepers — trails like those of the Parker sisters often grow cold. Whyte said she has not been able to find a gravestone for either sister.

Bringing a fresh view of the kidnapping, Ralph Denlinger of the East Nottingham Township Historical Commission traced the roads taken by McCreary when he fled south with Rachel. The Miller farm stood somewhere in what is now Nottingham Park, Denlinger said. In that era, McCreary would have taken his wagon down Christine Road, which is now Route 472, to the Maryland line. Milt Diggins, who has spent several years researching the case from the point of view of southern slavery sympathizers, vividly explained how Elizabeth — who he estimated was between 12 and 13 at the time of her kidnapping — was beaten and told that she had to take the name Henrietta before she was sold to New Orleans.

McCready was in financial trouble, Diggins said, and after undoubtedly being paid for kidnapping Elizabeth, he came after Rachel. He hadn’t counted on the community rising up to help her, though.

“Eight people from the area followed her,” Diggins said. “They were white men. Although there were certainly black families who wanted to help, Baltimore was a dangerous place, and if they crossed the border, they would immediately be killed or sold into slavery.”

The 60 people who eventually showed up for the trial did so “knowing the great danger they were in,” Diggins said.

The Parker case, he said, is about “a community of people coming together with compassion in the face of hostility. I think it’s one of the greatest examples in American history.”

In their research for requesting the historical marker, members of the local historical societies sparked internet communication about both Miller and the Parker sisters. On Saturday, Pauline McGinniss spoke on behalf of 14 people who stood at the front of the church. McGinniss flew in from her home in San Diego for the event.

“Joseph Miller was our great-great-grandfather,” she told the crowd. “And today I’m here with the descendants of Miller’s five girls.” Some of the guests — including a few who still lived in the Chester County area — had never heard about their family’s connection to the slavery issue until last year. As they gathered in the brilliant sunshine beside the gravestone of their ancestor, posing for photos and greeting each other, there was a sense that history had come full circle.

When he set out running after Rachel Parker on that winter day in 1851, Joseph Miller could not have known how long his actions would echo through history. Last weekend, his family offered their thanks.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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