Shortly after my father died I began to search for his ancestors, my ancestors. Within a couple of years I had masses of information about Ira Sayles, my dad’s mother’s grandfather, including a one-line reference in The Alfred (NY) Sun obituary of one George Parker.
A little later [George Parker] was brought north by Prof. Sayles.The Alfred Sun (Alfred, New York), June 4, 1902
Research into those words revealed a story of serendipity.
George Parker was a young black man, 18 to 20 years old, who sought refuge from slavery in the cabins of Uniontown, a contraband camp outside the Union stronghold in Suffolk, Virginia. He arrived as part of a small group of refugees from Murfreesboro, North Carolina in early 1863 after Lincoln’s promised emancipation proclamation became reality.
Murfreesboro was an important antebellum town not far from the Virginia border situated on the Meherrin River, a tributary of the Chowan River which flowed into the Albemarle Sound. By the fall of 1862 its shops and academies had been appropriated by the Confederate cavalry for barracks, commissaries, and stables; a Union boat sat down river guarding the way to the coast.
That fall, across the North Carolina border, soldiers–including those commanded by my great-great-grandfather, Captain Ira Sayles–regularly marched out of Camp Suffolk to the Blackwater and Nottoway Rivers, streams just to the north and east of Murfreesboro, foraging and engaging in skirmishes with “secesh” troops.
By the time George Parker and his fellow refugees made their way in wintry conditions past skittish pickets and irate slave-catchers into the pine cabins of Uniontown my ancestor Ira was too ill to carry his officer’s sword.
So how, then, did Ira and George begin a collaboration culminating in George Parker’s lifelong residence in Alfred, New York?
My great-great-grandpa was an exceptional teacher by all accounts, equal parts demanding, unrelenting, and encouraging.
Ira Sayles also had a long history as an abolitionist. In the fall of 1850 he organized his Alfred colleagues, neighbors, and family in resisting the Fugitive Slave Act, declaring in a published op-ed that they would refuse to cooperate with any enforcement of the act “even unto death.” In the summer of 1862 he once again organized these folks, exhorting fellow able-bodied men to answer President Lincoln’s call for 300, 000 volunteers, and enlisted himself at the age of 44.
Captain Sayles was an acknowledged leader in his community because of his brain, not his brawn. And though his heart and soul longed to be part of the moral defeat of the Confederacy, his body was not able to endure the physical privations and disease of camp life.
The muster rolls for January and February of 1863–the time period I suspect George Parker arrived in Camp Suffolk’s Uniontown–indicate that Captain Sayles was too unwell to report for military duty.
But perhaps not so ill that he couldn’t teach.
A convalescing Sayles may have walked from his hospital bed to the Uniontown school, lecturing, tutoring, assisting in the classroom tasks. Or perhaps Ira simply stayed in bed and tutored from his cot anyone who wanted to learn. Including young George.
It is hard to know who first recognized the potential in the relationship. Ira knew he had to resign, that he couldn’t wield his sword against the “insolent foe.” As the teacher-soldier was digesting this bitter pill, perhaps George expressed a desire to move on, out of the crowded camp, away from the disease and constant threat of re-enslavement. And perhaps Ira proposed that the young man travel, not just to another contraband camp, but to New York, to a community of farmers and educators invested in the freedom of the formerly enslaved.
George and Ira crossed paths, just in time, as one was arriving in camp, and one was preparing to depart. They found each other by pure serendipity.
Ira received his honorable discharge February 25, 1863. Shortly thereafter, they traveled by boat–one middle-aged white dude, one very young black man–down the Nansemond River to the Chesapeake Bay, on up the Potomac River to Washington, D.C. There they caught a series of trains to Alfred Station, disembarking to lead very separate lives.
George Parker came north with Professor Sayles, his future not yet written.
George Parker spent the rest of his life in Allegany County, New York, a welcomed member of the town of Alfred. Student, farmer, friend, husband, father. He died in 1902, leaving the farm he purchased on the edge of town to the Alfred University community that embraced him.
The Alfred Sun (Alfred, New York), June 4, 1902; accessed digitally from Old Fulton New York Post Cards (fultonhistory.com) 5 April 2021.
Murfreesboro, North Carolina: Confederate States Of America. Army. Dept. Of Northern Virginia. Chief Engineer’S Office, Campbell, A. H. & Cassell, C. E. (1863) Map of Hertford and part of Northampton and Bertie counties, N.C.: surveyed under the direction of A.H. Campbell, Capt. of Engineers & Ch’f. Topog’l Dep’t N.D. Va. [S.l.: Chief Engineer’s Office, D.N.V] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00323/.
Camp Suffolk, Virginia: Allen, O. S. (1863) Map of the siege of Suffolk, Va. [S.l.: s.n] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00399/.
A terrific read on the process of emancipation and the role of contraband camps: Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War by Chandra Manning, Vintage Books: New York, 2016.