Lines and Gardens: Stories of Slavery

Stateline Rd. Nottingham PA

I live a few miles south of the Mason Dixon line, the perimeter that served as a resolution in the border dispute between Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania in the mid 1700’s. Later the line became the boundary that separated freedom from slavery; the imaginary divider that caused very real division between the North and South, between brothers. Many of the markers originally placed between 1763 and 1767 have disappeared, but in certain places the original stone monument-esque markers remain standing. Aside from these reminders which were originally placed every 5th mile along the line there was no physical barrier, no wall, that kept anyone or anything from crossing to the other side. Yet being born on the northern side of the line meant freedom for many. It meant a different view of humanity.

In a small settlement, located north of the line, called Nottingham lived two sisters with the last name of Parker. Their first names were Rachel and Elizabeth. They were African American and they were free, but a slave catcher, named Thomas McCreary, without an eye for detail and a hunger for money would soon change that. He would claim that they both were runaway slaves and he would drag them across that imaginary divider, the one that had for the previous two generations before them, kept their family safe.

Both young ladies were employed as domestic servants for neighboring farmers and their family was known by locals and even the slave catcher knew of them as his primary job had him delivering mail to the area. Elizabeth was only 10 and with the cooperation of her crooked employer, she was boxed up and sent to Baltimore to be sold into to slavery for the price of $1,000. In contrast, Rachel, age 16, was defended by her lady employer, Rebecca Miller. After the mailman/slave catcher requested to speak with Rebecca, McCreary entered the home at Rachel’s invite. After being welcomed into the home, he forcibly grabbed Rachel as Rebecca tried to fight him off and her four children gathered in the room screaming for the release of the young girl they had most likely known for their entire lives. Joseph Miller, the man of the house, hearing the screams ran as fast as he could from the other end of the property to see what was going on, but the undoubtedly frightened Rachel was already loaded on the wagon and McCreary was wielding a knife. Joseph attempted again to rescue the girl with the assistance of a neighbor who blocked their getaway with his farm wagon, but both men backed off when McCreary and his accomplice again brandished weapons.

Joseph and four of his neighbors continued the pursuit on horseback as they rushed to the closest train station, located in Perryville, Maryland, 16 miles away. The train had already departed before they reached the tracks, but by the sovereign grace of God, two friends of the Millers, Eli Haines and a young man named Wiley, who were on their way to Philadelphia recognized Rachel and quickly switched trains to Baltimore to keep an eye on her and the captors. They knew their neighbors well and that a search party would be on the way to rescue the girl. They planned to keep track of the young lady and assist by giving the rescuers directions to her whereabouts upon their arrival. I would like to think that the gentleman’s familiar faces and presence on the train was noticed by Rachel and that it brought her a sense of strength and hope for what was to come. The very next train brought the rescue party and with the help of Eli, Wiley, and a local Quaker Friend they quickly formed a plan to rescue her from her newest reality, a slave pen, the temporary holding grounds where slaves were kept before being sold. The Quaker was well acquainted with Campbell, the owner of the slave pen, and when approached by the team he willingly released Rachel into the hands of her grateful rescuers. As pragmatic men and believers in justice, they took Rachel to the jail house for her safety and to await the hearing of her case, with hopes her release would be imminent. With nothing more for the men to do at the jailhouse and with optimism running high they went to the Quaker’s house for a celebratory dinner.

The Quaker Friend knew the men would be targets for the angry slavery advocates and he devised a route for them to safely arrive at the train station under the cover of darkness. The rescue team was warned to not leave the group at any moment, but with a false sense of security, Miller left the group before the train pulled out to smoke a cigar on the busy train platform and he disappeared. The rescue party’s feelings of hope and happiness soon turned to panic and fear. Young Wiley, being the least known in the matter at hand, ventured throughout the cars in search of Miller but he returned without finding him.

Freemont Rd Nottingham PA

Joseph Miller was found several days later hanging in a tree, declared suicide by Maryland newspapers. His friends and family did not believe such a preposterous claim and went to Baltimore to bring his body home. Upon arrival, they were directed to a 2-foot deep grave where Miller was interred in a primitive box that allowed dirt to fall around his dead body. His friends had a proper coffin made and traveled home with his body via train. Miller did not Rest in Peace though, as his body was exhumed several times thereafter to perform autopsies. Miller’s death was no suicide, his body bore the marks of manacles around his wrists and ankles, he had rope burns around his waist, signs of a torture device being hooked to his nose, he was drenched in arsenic, explaining why his bowels and stomach were completely empty of the earlier celebratory meal; he had retched everything up. Lastly, he was hung from a tree, a message that spoke loud and clear to the abolitionists of the North.

The story of the Parker sisters’ kidnapping is horrific. I cried more than I care to admit learning about and imagining this story, not only for the betrayed Elizabeth and the terrified Rachel; children ripped from all they had ever known and taken to a “land” that believed them somehow to be less-than-human. I also cried for the frightened fighters mustering courage to do what was right in the face of evil; the mama, Rebecca Miller, pounding dainty fists on the post man, the Miller children raising their voices in opposition to their friend being drug from their own home, the neighbor who tried to stop a reckless wagon, the travelers who changed their plans to be the eyes of the rescuers they had faith would come, the Quaker Friend who used his connections and his hospitality which later earned a brutal beating by pro-slavery thugs, Joseph Miller and his friends who didn’t know what to expect but knew they had to do something.

Micah 6 asks:

“What can we bring to the Lord? What kind of offering should we bring him? Should we bow before God with offerings of yearling calves? Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins? No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”

As Christians we complicate things so often. We think we need to be extravagant and showy in what we do and say for God, but the requirement expectations are simple, albeit difficult. Seek justice, mercy and humility as we walk through life with God.

I want to live beyond myself like the courageous folks surrounding the Parker girls. Unfortunately over 100 years later people are still treating others as less than, as property, as pawns in a game of power and riches. In 2016 there are more slaves than any other time in history, an estimated 20.9 million people being forced to work in the sex and labor industries. I want to not only recognize what is right, I want to do it; I want to ooze compassion and forgiveness; I want a humble God-stride, to give him credit for every step I take. Yeah, I really want that life, but if I could be transparent for a moment, Joseph Miller’s death scares me. Like really, really scares me. I want to think that if I am doing what God says that I get a guarantee of safety, that my days will continue until I’m old and gray, but with Christ, safety is not guaranteed.

In fact, Jesus says in Luke 9:23-24, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake you will save it.”

Walking with God does not equate our safety; walking with God equates furthering His Kingdom.

There is a Mexican proverb that I love, it says, “They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.” Joseph Miller’s death in 1852 was tragic and assuredly devastated his family, but his death sprouted up a garden of bravery in the face of injustice as 79 men and women from his local area traveled more than 50 miles across an imaginary line into a hostile environment to testify on behalf of Elizabeth and Rachel Parker. Justice prevailed and the girls returned home to their mother. Miller’s death also spurred the abolitionists of the North to pursue their fight with even more fervor, the stakes were higher than ever and they knew that freedom would not come without a price, they knew that the line dividing freedom and slavery must become a thing of the past, that along with justice, mercy, and a humble walk with God, they needed unity. They faced fear head on and with courage they took the risk that if they did what was required, no matter the outcome, there would be gardens for the future to enjoy not lines of division.

This is what is required of us.

The fascinating story of the Parker sisters and Joseph Miller can be found in detail at the links below:

Explore PA History

Mainline Today

Also in this book (not an affiliate link): Stealing Freedom Along the Mason Dixon Line by Milt Diggins