African-Americans made up a tiny slice of the pre-Civil War population of Wisconsin. Less than 1200 are recorded on the 1860 federal census, out of a total head count of 775,881. It’s safe to assume that the actual number in residence was larger, since African-Americans—runaway slaves or documented free men and women–had plenty of reason not to consider any government agent a friend.
One man of color in Wisconsin who was not afraid to make his presence known was Byrd Parker. He came to Oshkosh from North Carolina by way of Chicago where he had served as a minister in the “African” Methodist (segregated) Church. In 1855, with no pulpit open to him in his new home town, Parker and his wife Jane opened an “eating saloon.”
The newly-born Republican Party swept into state office on an anti-slavery platform in 1856. The legislature placed a referendum on the ballot for November, 1857 asking if Wisconsin should recognize the right of “Negro” men to vote. Parker attended a gathering in Racine held to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies where black and white activists also met “to adopt some efficient means to canvass the State in favor of equal suffrage.”
One of the “means” they adopted was to dispatch Byrd Parker on a lecture tour. The young man left Jane and their one year old daughter May in Oshkosh and hit the road in frontier Wisconsin. It was not necessarily hostile territory, just a place where a black face was a rare sight and a well-spoken black man an exotic apparition.
By all accounts, Parker met the challenge. In Milwaukee, he was reported as “little inferior” to the well-known abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass and described as “a strong advocate in the cause of his oppressed people.” In Berlin, the crowd filled the meeting hall and applauded his words. In Menasha, he was praised for exposing the “barren…doctrine [that] the blacks have no rights which white men are bound to respect.”
Parker was good, and his cause just but the time was not yet right. He could not persuade a majority of the all-white, male electorate to vote in favor of suffrage for black men. The referendum campaign ended, but Parker did not stop. He continued to speak out against slavery and in favor of equal rights for African-Americans. After hearing him speak early in 1858, editor and Democratic Party leader “Brick” Pomeroy christened Parker a “freedom shrieker.” It was not a compliment, especially from Pomeroy, who became one of Wisconsin’s most committed anti-war, pro-secession and therefore pro-slavery advocates.
Parker did not live to see the Civil War, its terrible carnage , or the new birth of freedom it brought to African-Americans. Early in 1860, he was on the road, at a podium in the village of Randolph, shrieking for freedom, when he collapsed, felled by a congenital lung condition. He survived a few days and saw his family before he died, leaving Jane a widow at age thirty with three children: May, five; Ida, three; Byrd, Jr., one year old.
In the century that followed other freedom shriekers came in Byrd Parker’s wake and other young mothers came to know Jane Parker’s pain.
We are sad for the pain they bore, fortunate they were not silent.