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Environmental Factor, March 2012

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NIEHS honors African-American History Month with stories of runaway slaves

By Ian Thomas

Freddie Parker, Ph.D., standing at the podium

Parker is helping give voices to men and women traditionally overlooked by conventional historians. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

NIEHS Deputy Associate Director for Management Chris Long, standing in the audience with a copy of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

NIEHS Deputy Associate Director for Management Chris Long, front, joined colleagues from the Office of Management in the stirring African-American anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As part of its 2012 celebration of African-American History Month, NIEHS welcomed Freddie Parker, Ph.D., to Rodbell Auditorium for a one-hour seminar titled “They Fled Too: Female Slave Runaways in North Carolina, 1775‐1840.” Based on this year’s theme of recognizing the achievements of women in black history, Parker’s lecture provided those in attendance with an historical account of life as a female slave on the run.

“A lot of studies have been done on runaway slaves since the inception of Negro History Day in 1926,” said Parker, currently a professor of history at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) in Durham, N.C. “However, in all that time, not one book or scholarly article has been devoted solely to female runaway slaves.”

Untold stories

According to Parker, the vast majority of previous research on runaway slaves has dealt almost exclusively with men, in large part because reported cases of runaway males far outnumbered those of females. While there are a wide range of reasons for this, Parker surmised that the presence of children played a pivotal role in a woman’s decision to flee. 

“Since so much of the South was agrarian in nature at that time, females were encouraged, and often times demanded, to have multiple children at a very early age,” he explained. “Because of this, many women were far more reluctant to leave their plantations, or subject their families to a dangerous life on the run in the swamps and wilderness, where they’d be forced to take refuge.”

Further complicating matters were the staggering mortality rates of newborns at the time.

“If a woman in the eighteenth century was pregnant twenty times during her life, only half of those children were actually born, because of the enormous health disparities and diseases which were prevalent at the time,” Parker noted. “Out of those ten kids, only six survived past age 5.”

Right at home

A native of Hillsborough, N.C., Parker earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NCCU before moving on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned his doctorate in American history. The author of such books as “Running for Freedom: Slave Runaways in North Carolina, 1775-1840” and “Stealing a Little Freedom: Advertisements for Slave Runaways in North Carolina, 1791-1840,” Parker is a long-time member of both the North Carolina Historical Commission and the state’s African-American Heritage Commission.

“It’s always such a pleasure to have Dr. Parker speak at our events,” said Veronica Robinson, secretary of the local chapter of Blacks in Government, which co-sponsored Parker’s talk along with the NIEHS Diversity Council. “As a researcher, he has a real passion for the field of African-American history though, as a North Carolinian, he also brings a unique perspective on our state’s place in that history.” 

Currently, Parker serves as chairman of the board of the African-American History Project Advisory Board at Tryon Palace in New Bern, N.C., and as president of the Historical Society of North Carolina.

Setting the record straight

“I’ve spent the bulk of my entire research career studying those men, women, and children who were slaves right here in North Carolina,” Parker concluded. “These are people who haven’t really had a voice in our state’s history, with the exception of how they were portrayed by their owners. That’s why it’s so important that we, as historians, endeavor to tell those stories as accurately as we can, so that future generations know who they were and how they lived.”

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)

Audience members

The program attracted a cross section of people at NIEHS, including Jenn Evans, left, of Employee Services, and Otis Lyght, a contractor with the NTP Pathology Support Group. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Veronica Robinson, sitting in the audience. Bill Collins is seated in the background.

Robinson was visibly moved and engaged as Parker described the lives of female slaves in North Carolina. Seated beside her is Diversity Council chair Brad Collins. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

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