John P. Parker was born in 1827 in Norfolk, Virginia. His father was white and his mother was a black slave. John was sold to a slave agent in 1835 and then sold to a slave caravan which took him to Mobile, Alabama where he was purchased by a physician. Working as a house servant, Parker learned to read and write, often learning alongside of the physician’s sons.
In 1843 John was sent North with the owners sons as they went to attend college. John was soon brought back to Mobile when the physician feared he might escape into the Northern territories. Back in Mobile, Parker worked as an craftsman’s apprentice for an iron manufacturer and learned to be a plasterer. After being abused by one of his bosses, John attempted to escape to New Orleans but was captured trying to flee by a riverboat and was returned to his owner.
Parker eventually became a molder and was transferred to a New Orleans foundry where he was able to do extra work to earn money. This would allow him to purchase his freedom in 1845 for $1,800.00. At this point he moved north to. Indiana and began working in foundries. At the same time he secretly became a conductor on the “Underground Railroad” which eventually helped to smuggle more than 1,000 slaves to escape into free states such as Indiana and Ohio.
In 1848, Parker moved to Beachwood Factory, Ohio where he opened a general store. Six years later he opened a small foundry near Ripley, Ohio which produced special and general castings. The foundry eventually employed more than 25 workers and manufactured slide valve engines and reapers. In 1863 Parker served as a recruiter for the 27th Regiment, U.S Colored troop during the United States Civil War and furnished castings to the war effort.