February is Black History Month and today I would like to highlight Henry Ward Beecher Parker, better known as Dixie Parker.
“Strathroy: Red Valley”, published in 1934, includes a photo of Dixie and this description of a lively and charismatic man:
“How many of our readers remember this smiling face? Those that don’t remember the face have heard of him for he was one of the town’s best known characters. Escaping from slavery in the United States, he crossed into Canada and to use his own words, “clasped Queen Victoria” ‘round the waist and shook hands with the Lion. For years Dixie was the walking advertisement for Le Royd’s Right House, 199 Front St. Once he was to leave town and the boys presented him with a watch at a public reception. In reply to this he said he had no idea they thought so much of him and so he guessed he would stay in Strathroy after all and live and die with them, which he did.”
Henry Parker is noted as a “labourer” on the 1871 and 1881 census records for the town of Strathroy, and lived with his wife, Mary Ann Parker, and his children William, Frank, Mary, Sarah, Alice and Florence. Both Henry and Mary Ann were born in the United States, but the exact date of their arrival in Canada is unknown. The letters of Stewart Lamont indicate that Henry Parker was at one point the manager of the St. Lawrence Bank in Strathroy, and that he briefly moved to Chatham in the mid-1880s to work for a construction gang with the Canada Pacific Railway. An obituary for Mary Ann Parker was published in July of 1887; the 1891 census notes that Henry is widowed.
An obituary for Henry Parker appeared in the Strathroy Age on November 22, 1894:
“In Strathroy, on Friday forenoon, November 16th, died H.W.B. Parker, of the town of Strathroy, a man whose visage was perhaps familiar to more people than that of any other resident of Strathroy. Henry has long been a resident of Strathroy, was always a good worker, willing to attempt whatever job came to his hand. Many visitors to the town will miss his melodious voice when the bell of the auctioneer peals out the notice of cheap sales. Old residents of the town, who have left us, cherish cheery memories of Henry’s good natured face. His smile was ever broad and his remarks ever cheerful. any of those whom he has left behind might well take a leaf out of the book of his life. The funeral was conducted by Rev. F.G. Newton, on Sunday at 2 p.m. many paying a last tribute of respect by accompanying the remains to their last resting place. Mr. Parker was 65 years of age. He was twice married, his second wife having departed this life about nine months ago.”
And in the Strathroy Dispatch November 21st 1894:
Death of Mr. Henry Parker. On Friday last the death of this well-known and useful citizen occurred at his late residence, after a short illness from kidney trouble, his age being stated at 65 years. “Dixie,” as he was familiarly styled, was an exceedingly handy man around town, and for the past thirty years or so has filled a place among our citizens that will cause his taking away to be very much felt. He was born in Virginia a slave, and at the breaking out of the American war sought refuge in Canada, taking up his residence here, where he has remained almost continuously ever since. Many indeed will miss him, and many of our old citizens in other places will regret to hear of his demise. The funeral took place on Sunday afternoon, Rev. Mr. Newton conducted the services, and a very large gathering of our townspeople being in attendance.
The above information was gathered by Brianna Hammer for exhibit development to supplement a travelling exhibit “Passages to Freedom” that was shown at Museum Strathroy-Caradoc in 2010.