Stories from the golden age of lighthouses in the 1800s tend to be white-men-only affairs for sad and obvious reasons—slavery, discrimination, and prejudice. But tantalizing exceptions to this rule are out there, including the remarkable story of William Major Parker and his career as a keeper on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
We’ll meet him in a moment. First, a smidgeon of scene-setting. The work of safeguarding navigable waters in the 1800s belonged to federal agencies called the Revenue Cutter Service and the Lighthouse Board. White lighthouse keepers and ship captains working for those agencies occasionally brought in blacks to work as cooks or handle other tasks. That’s how, in 1836, a free black man named Aaron Carter came to die in the line of duty. He was working at the Cape Florida Lighthouse when it came under attack by Seminole Indians.
Such hires were discouraged, however, as federal officials wanted to keep color-barrier-busting arrangements to a minimum. For example: Lighthouse keepers were required by rule to ask bigwigs in faraway Washington for special permission before hiring black help. Several keepers were disciplined or fired for violating that rule.
Keepers Across the Color Line at Last
Things got a little better after the Civil War. The post-Lincoln Republican Party pushed hard for “Reconstruction” policies that aimed to give blacks a fuller share of citizenship, including better access to government jobs. The market for those jobs in the 1870s was ruled by politicians. People with the right connections to the party in power could arrange things so that their political enemies got fired and their allies got hired for jobs like postmaster, clerk, and lighthouse keeper.
The first black lighthouse keepers in Virginia came to their posts through this “spoils” system, by using connections with powerful white Republican politicians. Both appointments happened in 1870—Willis Augustus Hodges at the Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia Beach and William Roscoe Davis at Old Point Comfort Lighthouse in Hampton.
The trend arrived on the Eastern Shore in 1876 when William Major Parker was hired as an assistant keeper at the Assateague Lighthouse near Chincoteague, Va. Parker’s early years are mostly a mystery. He was born during the 1850s into a free black family on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. (I haven’t come across any sources that seem to know which town or area where he grew up in.)
Black families in those post-slavery years often put a high priority on education, so it’s no surprise to learn that Parker enrolled as a teenager at the then-brand-new Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which is now Hampton University. Like many other historically black colleges, Hampton was born in Reconstruction days with the goal of giving blacks the knowledge and skills they needed to operate farms, get jobs, and start businesses. The school’s founder, a white Union veteran named Samuel Chapman Armstrong, famously mentored and encouraged the young Booker T. Washington.
Many years later, after William Major Parker was dead, his sister, Sarah P. Cord, would have this to say about Hampton in a short essay celebrating her brother’s life and accomplishments:
“My brother entered Hampton School in the fall of 1873 [and studied there for] three years. … While at school he used to delight in going out sailing with General Armstrong in the boat known as the Quakeress. One day, while out sailing, they were caught in a storm and capsized, but were brought safely to shore. … Although not a graduate of Hampton, it was his chief delight to talk of the school and … how it had shaped his life, and to express his desire to visit Hampton once more.”
From College to the Beacon
The reason Parker didn’t graduate is that he dropped out. Somewhere in here he had come to the attention of a man named Thomas W. Taylor. A white Republican from the Onancock area, Taylor owned a big sawmill and served for a while as mayor of Onancock. For many years he ranked as a big-time power-broker in Republican circles on the Eastern Shore.
Taylor must have been impressed by young William Major Parker, because the white man soon pulled some spoils-system strings on Parker’s behalf, arranging that appointment as assistant keeper at Assateague. (Another possible motive here was greed, as political hires in those years sometimes had to commit themselves to donating a big chunk of their salaries to the correct political party.)
Parker’s appointment came during a period of growth in the shipping business along the Atlantic Coast and in the Chesapeake Bay. Commerce between rural outposts on Delmarva and big Eastern seaboard cities was on the rise. New maps made shipping safer by pinpointing dangerous shoals. The Lighthouse Service did its part to help keep this commerce safe by building more beacons.
One such project, Killick Shoal Lighthouse, was a response to a big increase in ship traffic on Sinepuxent and Chincoteague bays. No causeway connected Chincoteague Island with the mainland back then. Everything had to come and go by boat. The jump in commercial activity came after a town called Franklin City arose on a patch of previously empty marsh on the mainland, three and a half miles north of the island. That town took shape in a mad rush around a newly constructed railroad line, and this new transportation option gave folks on Chincoteague the opportunity to make a lot more money than they used to by shipping produce, oysters, seafood, and other goods to other towns and cities.
The light went on at Killick Shoal for the first time on March 10, 1886. As you can tell from the old photos here, the beacon was a bit of an odd duck, design-wise. The square cottage stood a story and a half tall and had four rooms. One unusual thing about the beacon is the way lantern was situated off in a corner of the structure rather than in the center.
The Appointment Stirs Controversy
From the get-go the Lighthouse Board decided that this new beacon would be a one-man affair, with no need for assistant keepers. The job first went to a white man named Samuel Quillen, who had been the “first” assistant keeper at Assateague. (Parker had ranked as the “second” assistant there.)
Federal hiring practices had started to change by this point. In the early 1880s Congress established a Civil Service Commission charged with replacing that “spoils systems” of prior decades with a hiring and promotion system based on merit instead of connections.
The law wasn’t a perfect panacea for black hopefuls. It was more of a baby step in the right direction. Discrimination remained a big obstacle, but more and more blacks managed to get past that obstacle. By the end of the 1800s, blacks held some 12,000 federal jobs.
William Parker was an early beneficiary of the new civil-service rules. When Quillen resigned as keeper after just a few months at Killick Shoal, Parker was next in line and got the job without needing the help of a white power broker. His appointment generated a round of controversy that seems predictable in retrospect. An item appeared in local Eastern Shore papers taking aim at the qualifications of both Parker and the man who was appointed to replace him at the Assateague light.
“We are informed that one if not both of these men are utterly incompetent, knowing nothing of lighthouse work and cannot tell even in what direction the wind is blowing. … It is to be hoped that an examination will be given these men so that it may be seen to what folly the civil service laws … lead.”
The Lighthouse Board seems to have ignored those complaints, and Parker evidently proved the doubters wrong in time. He kept the job at Killick Shoal for 25 years, passing a slew of the rigorous surprise inspections the Lighthouse Board was famous for conducting. I haven’t come across any more complaints about him in the public record during my research.
Here, again, is his sister, Sarah Cord:
“He battled with the troubles of a light-keeper’s life. No matter with what velocity the winds blew or with what force the angry waves beat against his dwelling, he was ever at his post making known the dangerous parts of the Sinepuxent Bay and revealing to the sailors the way to go. Here he lived and worked for twenty-six years, honored with the esteem of all who came in contact with him.”
At some point before or during his time at Killick Shoal Parker married a woman named Venus. Several historical accounts of Parker’s accomplishments place Venus in a professional capacity here as well as a marital one. The apparently served as Parker’s right-hand woman on the lighthouse—basically, an assistant keeper.
Running from a Posse in Chincoteague
Two incidents stand out in their long career together at Killick Shoal. The first came in 1905. Parker had been on the job for nearly two decades by this point. One fall day he sailed into Chincoteague to get supplies and found himself caught up in a civic emergency. The cops in Chincoteague were organizing a posse to go after a suspected murderer. Those cops had the legal right in those days to require private citizens to join their posse, and that’s what they told William Parker to do.
Parker refused, presumably for the obvious reason that he was obligated by his federal job to get back to Killick Shoal and light his beacon that night. The next time he came to town he was arrested for violating that posse order.
But the Lighthouse Board had his back. The Alexandria Gazette, Nov. 14, 1905:
“The government at Washington has taken steps to stand by one who stood by it through most trying circumstances, only to involve himself in the direst difficulties. It is the case of William M. Parker, keeper of the Killick lighthouse on Chincoteague Bay, Va., and the question to be determined is to what government he owes first allegiance, the federal or state.
“Some weeks ago Parker was summoned to join a posse to seek out an alleged murderer. To go on this task meant that he forsake the light. He concluded it was better to save lives than revenge them so he stole off to the lighthouse. A month later when he came ashore for his mail and provisions he was arrested for failing to join the posse. His trial will soon be heard and the Department of Commerce and Labor has requested the Department of Justice to defend him. This will be done.”
The charges were dropped.
Farewell in a Pose of Prayer
The second incident came at the end of Parker’s career. One bit of background will help to set the stage here. By all indications, William Major Parker was a man of faith. Not only was he a longtime parishioner at Friendship United Methodist Church in Wattsville, Va., he served there as a church trustee for 30-some years.
When the sun set on Jan. 23, 1912 the light at Killick Shoal failed to come on. Venus Parker happened to be in Chincoteague that night, perhaps running errands or visiting friends. She wasn’t the only one who took note of the darkness out in Chincoteague Bay. She joined a small party of islanders who sailed out to the lighthouse. There they found William Major Parker on his knees, with hands clasped in front of him. Here, again, is Parker’s sister:
“While alone at the lighthouse, isolated from wife and friends by the severe, icy weather, death came and called him while kneeling at his bedside in the act of prayer.”
Parker was in his mid- to late 50s at this point. He had worked at Assateague Lighthouse and Killick Shoal for a combined total of 35 years. He is buried at Friendship United Methodist in Wattsville.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: Venus stepped in to serve as interim keeper at Killick Shoal for a period after her husband died. I haven’t come across any indications that she wanted the job for the long term. My guess is that she was relieved when, a few months after her husband’s death, the Lighthouse Board appointed a man named Isaac D. Peterson to the post.
NOTE #2: The light at Killick Shoal continued to shine until 1939 when it was deactivated and dismantled. All that’s left of the beacon today is the metal platform the cottage rested up. You might be able to catch of glimpse of that platform while driving across the causeway that leads to and from Chincoteague.
NOTE #3: The congregation at Friendship United Methodist Church is still gathering in Wattsville nowadays, Their house of worship has been redone several times over the years, but it still includes spaces that date back to those Reconstruction-era 1860s. Friendship United ranks among the oldest black churches on the Virginia shore.
NOTE #4: If you want to listen to a well-done version of the story of William Major Parker, find your way to episode six of a podcast called “The Bivalve Trail.” It’s the work of the nonprofit Chincoteague Cultural Alliance. It was one of many sources I consulted in putting this story together. More info about the podcast here.
NOTE #5: The Museum of Chincoteague Island has material about William Major Parker in its extensive exhibits on the history and culture of the island.