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The remarkable story of an 1850s kidnapping of two free black girls in rural Pennsylvania after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act

The Parker Sisters

A Border Kidnapping

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Lucy Maddox

"The Parker Sisters impresses by the breadth and depth of Lucy Maddox's impeccable research as well as by its engaging, at times genuinely suspenseful writing. The brisk narrative of the kidnapping of two free black sisters across the Mason-Dixon Line comes to life here, as it is anchored in newspaper coverage and records of legal as well as extralegal procedures. Maddox is a skillful historian who enters a single case so fully that the Fugitive Slave Act becomes understandable in a very direct way-as does the history of these borderlands and the meaning of emancipation for the lives of the protagonists. This is an outstanding book."
Werner Sollors, Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Research Professor of English Literature, Harvard University, and author of African American Writing: A Literary Approach

In 1851, Elizabeth Parker, a free black child in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was bound and gagged, snatched from a local farm, and hurried off to a Baltimore slave pen. Two weeks later, her teenage sister, Rachel, was abducted from another Chester County farm. Because slave catchers could take fugitive slaves and free blacks across state lines to be sold, the border country of Pennsylvania/Maryland had become a dangerous place for most black people.

In The Parker Sisters, Lucy Maddox gives an eloquent, urgent account of the tragic kidnapping of these young women. Using archival news and courtroom reports, Maddox tells the larger story of the disastrous effect of the Fugitive Slave Act on the small farming communities of Chester County and the significant, widening consequences for the state and the nation.

The Parker Sisters is also a story about families whose lives and fates were deeply embedded in both the daily rounds of their community and the madness and violence consuming all of antebellum America. Maddox's account of this horrific and startling crime reveals the strength and vulnerability of the Parker sisters and the African American population.

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Excerpt

Read the Introduction (pdf).


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Reviews

"The Parker Sisters is a real page-turner. Maddox tells a remarkable story—in fact, a set of interconnected stories—interweaving them in a suspenseful way. Maddox provides a very different perspective on the domestic slave trade, revealing both the vulnerability and the strength of the African American population. People betray one another and stand by one another-and the lines of race and of free and enslaved status are often blurred. A great many characters take part in this complex tale of abduction, murder, courtroom drama, behind-the-scenes deal making, and general lawlessness. The Parker Sisters is a riveting read!"
Julie Winch, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of Between Slavery and Freedom: Free People of Color in America from Settlement to the Civil War

"In this compact and engrossing story, Maddox uses the 1851 kidnappings of Elizabeth and Rachel Parker in Pennsylvania to demonstrate how antebellum slavery transcended state boundaries.... Maddox expertly contextualizes the Parker kidnappings, keeping her eye on the larger legal and political issues.... [She] dramatically renders the subsequent legal trials in thrilling detail, yet never loses sight of the kidnappings' historical importance in the deep divisions among Americans regarding slavery and abolition."
Publishers Weekly

"Maddox relates a gripping narrative of two free African American girls in mid-19th-century Pennsylvania.... The use of primary sources such as diaries and newspapers enriches the account of the Parker girls, their kidnappings and entry into slavery via Baltimore and then New Orleans, as well as the resulting trials. VERDICT: This book should be read by all who have an interest in freedom and civil rights. There is much to learn about the history of slavery that is still being discovered by historians such as Maddox."
—Library Journal (starred review)

"[A] thoroughly researched account of...the abduction of the sisters Elizabeth and Rachel Parker.... Maddox places the incident within the context of both the sectional conflict, particularly with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the experiences of the Parker family over several generations.... The author is sensitive to the nuances of race relations and antislavery sentiment in the North.... In all, the book is a masterful recreation of events, based on extensive use of primary sources. The kidnapping of the Parker sisters is a story worthy of this effort."
Pennsylvania Heritage

"Maddox focus[es] on the kidnapping of free blacks in the pre-Civil War North, illuminating a little-known but tragic aspect of antebellum US history.... Maddox demonstrates that the resulting furor can mostly be attributed to Northern reactions to the infamous Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the acrimony between Maryland and Pennsylvania over fugitive slaves and the kidnapping of free African Americans.... Maddox ha[s] performed Herculean tasks by scouring newspapers, court records, and secondary works to bring to light aspects of slavery and race relations that often pass unnoticed in most accounts of life in the antebellum US."
Choice

"Maddox eloquently tells the tragic story of human trafficking along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border."
Main Line Today

"This interesting story embodies many of the issues relating to race and slavery that Americans were struggling with in the decade before the Civil War. Maddox ably reconstructs the narrative of the complicated cases, the kidnapping charges, and the murder of Rachel's employer and would-be rescuer, Joseph Miller. The author effectively utilizes primary sources, especially court records and newspapers."
Journal of American History

"The Parker Sisters tells the remarkable stories of the two sisters' abductions into southern slavery, and the equally remarkable story of their eventual liberation by their white neighbors. These events have never before been told in detail, and Maddox's extensive research has revealed a case of extraordinary complexity.... In addition to the fascinating narrative, Maddox raises three important points about the complexity of relationships between blacks and whites, and northerners and southerners, in the antebellum era.... Maddox does a commendable job of placing an important story in a meaningful context."
American Historical Review

"In this lithe, well-researched, and readable volume, Lucy Maddox dives deep into an antebellum episode, evoking important reminders about the period in the process.... Intriguingly, Maddox suggests that Elizabeth Parker, who was sold in New Orleans, before being returned to Philadelphia, may have preferred urban slave life.... The chief virtue of this book is that by digging into this incident, an issue-kidnapping—that is often part of the story of the hardening of attitudes in the lead-up to the Civil War, is made instead to highlight the contingencies behind that hardening. The benefits of this sensitive treatment are many.... (R)eaders gain a keen sense of the connections, literal and figurative, that made this event an affair worthy of wider notice.... (T)he story of the Parker Sisters serves as a microhistory—an occurrence that lays bare the fibers of the world in which it took place and that illuminates the tensions that producer wider changes thereafter."
Journal of Southern History

"Maddox has pulled together a remarkable and fascinating story that addresses the monumental issue of slavery in the midcentury United States at the local, regional, and national levels. She adds layer upon layer of complexity to our understanding of the national attitude toward slavery, abolition, and the economic motives underpinning support for both. She also offers insightful commentary on the everyday lives of free black women and how for some, like Elizabeth Parker, slavery held out the promise of stability and certainty. The book is sure to spark fruitful conversation.... (A) valuable and scholarly contribution to the literature on the twilight of slavery and should be on the reading list of every scholar of the Civil War era."
Civil War History

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Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Line
3. The Parkers’ World
4. Border Justice
5. Elizabeth’s Story
6. Baltimore
7. Legal Justice
8. Freedom
9. Afterward

Acknowledgments
Appendix
Notes
Bibliography
Index

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About the Author(s)

Lucy Maddox is Professor Emerita of English and American Studies at Georgetown University. She is the author of Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs and Citizen Indians: Native American Intellectuals, Race, and Reform.

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Subject Categories

African American Studies
History
Philadelphia Region

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