Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes
Enslavement in Southampton, County Virginia
This novel, the first of the trilogy, is the story of Parson Sykes, the curiously enslaved teenager protagonist, historic self-liberation followed by his enlistment in the Union Army. The story takes place in Southampton County, near the end of the American Civil War on the farm of slave-holding Jacob Williams, the antagonist. During the 1831 Southampton Insurrection, the farm came under attack by Nat Turner and his insurgents, which still haunts Jacob. In the book, Parson and Jacob Williams are faced at opposite ends of the disputed points over the moral issue of slavery and secession, a political decision that led directly to war. The novel profiles Parson Sykes’ successful quest from enslavement to enlistment.
The Cross Keys, Southampton County 1864. Parson Sykes’ self-liberation quest began his lifelong struggle to secure human rights and equality in America. He was born and raised on Jacob Williams’ farm in the Cross Keys about fifteen years after the Nat Turner Insurrection. His parents, Solomon Sykes, and Louisa Williams, and their three sons, Parson, Joseph, and Henry, were enslaved on Jacob’s farm. When Parson was not working in the peanut, cotton, or tobacco fields, Jacob hired him out to the railroad company to perform basic carpentry, light building maintenance, and janitorial work.
Resistance and Abolition. During the Civil War, Jacob fearing that Parson and the other slaves might escape, intensified the plantation discipline and his grip on the farm. Parson believed no one should live in slavery or servitude and that slavery should be abolished in all forms and places. He learned that the abolitionists were resisting and furthering the abolition battle place into the political sphere. Parson and his brothers devised forms of passive resistance, such as damaging equipment, working slowly, and keeping their human rights and religious beliefs alive.
Commitment to Self-Liberation. In the conflict’s waning days, Parson enhanced his knowledge and appreciation of emancipation, agricultural commerce, information technology, and warfare through observation of his surroundings. Parson eventually learned that slavery was a commercial venture that existed where it was economically viable for those in power. Jacob Williams found slavery profitable and enjoyed a rate of return on slaves comparable to his other assets. A man of unbending independence, Parson sternly committed himself to self-liberation and emancipation.
Reactions to and Reflections on Freedom. As Parson reflected on his life, he recognized and believed that Black citizens in Cross Keys had a natural urge to be free and fight to determine their own livelihood. By observation and comparison of his surroundings, Parson grasped the injustice of his enslavement and felt called to react against slavery for no other reason than to gain his freedom. Parson met Frances Hill and recognized a need to bring to the consciousness of enslaved men and women the unhealthy messages they received through slavery and the effect on their relationships. He learned that enslaved African descendants had always desired freedom and self-liberation was the best method to gain it.
Broadsides, Brochures, and Newspapers. During the war, broadsides, brochures, and newspapers were vital sources of information on the conflict, and venues in which to attack and defend the issues that caused the Civil War. Working at the Boykins Depot gave Parson the opportunity to search through the depot waste containers for discarded, printed messages with actionable information about the cities and whistle stops along the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad network. He searched for non-military, political, economic, and social news reports, articles about the abolition of slavery, and advertisements of successful slave escapes. Parson now knew his self-liberation plan's mission - To reach Fort Monroe alive and fit for military service.
In Pursuit of Liberation and Equality. Although laws denied him freedom, Parson used a wide variety of strategies to contest Jacob's authority and to assert his right to control his own destiny. Jacob depended on his involuntary labor to keep the family business solvent. Parson, Joseph, and Henry often used work slowdowns and malingering cleverly to gain some terms and conditions for their labor. Like many enslaved Black people in the county, Parson opted to flee enslavement and pursue liberty and equality, although escape attempts were dangerous and uncertain. After studying the railroad map, Parson presumed that following along the connections en route from Boykins to Norfolk County was a plausible escape route to reach Fort Monroe.
Parson Reveals Escape Plan. Parson worked ferociously on his escape plan, collecting and storing provisions in his haven, gathering small tools for weapons, securing his railroad line connections map, and other apparatus to employ during his journey. He developed a plan to minimize the effects of contact, connection, or communication with the civilian populace. In the escape plan that Parson conceived, he assumed the home guard as Jacob’s first line of defense against his self-liberation. Parson planned the escape based on the assumption of early ground contact with slave catchers or patrollers, either en route or shortly after arrival at the destination. He knew about the difficulties of surviving exposure to winter weather, hiding in swamps or wooded thickets, and navigating into unknown territory based on folklore methodologies.
Quest for Freedom Behind Union Lines. According to information included in the National Archives and Civil War pension applications for the First Cavalry Regiment, United States Colored Troops, Parson and his two brothers Joseph and Henry Sykes, alias Williams, liberated themselves from a Southampton County, Virginia plantation and joined the Union Army at the same time and place. Parson’s journey to cross Union lines incurred enormous risks and was a tremendous gamble. He did not know the exact location of the Union Army and nearly fell into the hands of Confederate guerrillas or vigilantes. The consequences of either were grave. Parson and his brothers successfully entered Union-controlled territory, exhausted and ravenous.
Behold, Comrades-in-Arms. Parson and his brothers safely arrived at Camp Bowers Hill in Norfolk County. Bower’s Hill was in Virginia, on the Seaboard & Roanoke Railroad line, at a point about equidistant between Portsmouth, opposite Norfolk, and Suffolk. Eager Union recruiters greeted them as they entered the camp. Parson and his brothers enrolled in Company I, First Cavalry Regiment, United States Colored Troops. During enrollment, Parson always showed his strong desire for freedom and welcomed the pickets and guards from the Provost Marshal’s office as liberators. The recruiters sailed the three men across the Chesapeake Bay to begin basic training at Fort Hamilton with other African American recruits from Virginia and North Carolina.
The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes also functions to draw attention to the important role Black soldiers played during the Civil War as members of United States Colored Troops (USCT), a story that much needs to be told. Using vignettes of USCT regiments' roles in different battles, the novel details how the Union Army XXV Corps came into existence. The Corps, composed entirely of the black regiments, was the first Union forces to enter the fallen capital city of Richmond.
The next book, Enlistment in the XXV Corps, narrates Parson’s ordeal through the pathway of contraband to USCT soldiers he took to gain his freedom. As Union armies moved into the Confederacy, thousands of slaves fled to their camps. Although some Union officers sent runaways back to their masters, others allowed them to remain with their troops, using them as a workforce and dubbing them “contraband of war.” Nonmilitary jobs contraband held were as carpenters, butchers, boatmen, orderlies, nurses, and as builders of fortifications and other military works.