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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

James B. Parker Revisited

Daryl Rasuli


James B. Parker
James Benjamin Parker 1

Souls that are not at peace often bring turmoil to the living. For the last year, the spirit of one James B. Parker has possessed me. It happened easy enough. One day, a friend of mine mentioned he had read that an African American knocked the assassin of President McKinley down to the ground after he shot the president twice at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. I was intrigued that this fact was unknown to me and so many other people in Buffalo. So, after a cursory review on the Internet, I found it was true.

Now, this is where the spirit part came in. It seemed that I could not rest once I knew that James B. Parker did exist. Plus, with the celebration of the centennial of the Pan American Exposition at hand, there was more incentive to do the research and to bring Parker's story to the forefront.

The search led me to a greater understanding of a period of history that, generally, I have over looked. The time was between two great wars, the Civil War that ended in 1865 and 1914 the beginning of World War I. A time no more than 50 years in length, but for African Americans very critical years.

During this short span of time, two of the most dynamic African American leaders Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois each on opposite sides of the political spectrum emerged. It was not a joyful period for African Americans between 1890 and 1910, as 2600 Black men were lynched. In 1898, Ida B. Wells led a delegation to President William McKinley to protest lynching. In 1901, Congressman George White would be the last African American to serve in congress until 1928. African Americans would see legal segregation come into full force.

Imagine struggling with the forces that African Americans found in this environment at the turn of the century. These forces were all brought to bear on James Parker as he stood in line to shake President McKinley's hand. Why did he want to in the first place? He was a waiter working at the exposition, not a spectator, slowly viewing the exhibits and reveling in the wonders of the exposition.

There was Parker, standing in line waiting to shake the hand of the president of the United States when all hell broke loose. The tragic event quickly unfolded, according to a Secret Service Agent's story in a Buffalo newspaper article. He said,

"[I was watching] this man who appeared to be an Italian, who had a short cropped heavy black moustache, he was persistent and it was necessary for me to push him along so that the others could reach the President."

"Just as he released the President's hand, and as the President was reaching for the hand of the assassin, there were two quick shots. Startled for a moment, I looked and saw the President draw his right hand under his coat straighten up and, pressing his lips together, giving Leon Czolgosz the most scornful and contemptuously look possible to imagine."

"At the same time I reached for the young man and caught his left arm. The big Negro standing in back of him and would have been next to take the presidents hand struck the assassin in the neck with one hand and with the other reached for the revolver which had been discharged through the handkerchief and the shots had set fire to the linen."

"Immediately a dozen men fell upon the assassin and was borne on the floor. While on the floor Czolgosz again tried to discharge the revolver but before he got to the president the Negro knocked it from his hand. As it went across the floor, one of the artillerymen picked it up and put it in his pocket."

By all witnesses, James B. Parker was a big man. He was often described as being about 6 ft. 6 inches tall and weighing 250 pounds. In a Buffalo Times Sept. 12 article, he is described as a plain, modest, gentlemanly person. In 1901, he was 44 years old born on July 31, 1857 in Atlanta, Georgia. Educated in Atlanta schools, he also traveled as far north as Philadelphia, but returned south to live in Savanna. According to the Atlanta Constitution, he was well known in Savannah and at one time was a Constable for a Negro magistrate. The article also said he had the reputation of never returning an unserved warrant. The citizens of the East Side of Savannah also knew that he was man of few words and a command to submit to arrest was always quietly obeyed.

He traveled to Chicago and worked as waiter in the Pullman Car organization. He returned to Atlanta in 1895 but for the last five years lived in the north. Prior to coming to Buffalo, he was in Saratoga, New York and came to Buffalo only days before the assassination to work at the Exposition for the Bailey Catering Company. He took that job until a position opened as a "traveling agent" for the Gazetteer and Guide; a magazine for African Americans published in Buffalo by James Ross. At one time he had been a newspaperman working for the Southern Recorder.

Another witness in an article written later in the Los Angeles Times by George Reasons and Sam Patrick saw the incident a little differently:

"A gigantic negro waiter from the Plaza had been standing behind Czolgosz awaiting an opportunity in joyous expectation to shake the president's hand. He stood there, 6 feet 4 inches tall with 250 pounds of muscular enthusiasm, grinning happily until he heard the pistol shoot.

With one quick shift of his clenched fist, he knocked the pistol from the assassin's hand. With another, he spun the man around like a top and with a third, he broke Czolgosz's nose. A fourth split the assassin's lip and knocked out several teeth."

In the Sunday 8, 1901 Atlanta Constitution in article entitled "Staggering From Bullet He Was Calm" with a sub-head reading, "Story of the Shooting Told By Eyewitness", reported the statement of the eyewitness, "I saw the flash followed by the report and then heard the second shot. Instantly, James Parker, the colored man and Secret Service Agent Foster were upon Czolgosz and they bore him to the floor."

Another in the Buffalo Times September 10, 1901, report came from two Syracuse women, Mollie A. Jacquin and Miss Elizabeth Mahley tell of the shooting this way: "The first man to take hold of Czolgosz was the Negro Parker. He pushed his way through the crown and struck the man several times. The Negro seemed infuriated and I believe he would have killed Czolgosz it he would not have been taken away."

Parker's own remembrance of the event as told to a reporter from the Times began:

"I heard the shots. I did what every citizen of this country should have done. I am told that I broke his nose—I wish it had been his neck. I am sorry I did not see him four seconds before. I don's say that I would have thrown myself before the bullets. But I do say that the life of the head of this country is worth more than that of an ordinary citizen and I should have caught the bullets in my body rather than the President should get them. I can't tell you what I would have done and I don't like to have it understood that I want to talk of the matter. I tried to do my duty. That's all any man can do."

Parker said, "I went to the Temple of Music to hear what speeches might be made. I got in line and saw the President. I turned to go away as soon as I learned that there was to be only a handshaking. The crowd was so thick that I could not leave. I was startled by the shots. My fist shot out and I hit the man on the nose and fell upon him, grasping him about the throat. I believe that if he had not been suffering pain he would have shot again. I know that his revolver was close to my head. I did not think about that then though. Then came Mr. Foster, Mr. Ireland and Mr. Gallagher. There was that marine, too. I struck the man, threw up his arm and then went for his throat. It all happened so quickly I can hardly say what happen, except that the secret service man came right up. Czolgosz is very strong. I am glad that I am a strong man also or perhaps the result might not have been what it was."

"I am a Negro, and am glad that the Ethiopian race has what ever credit comes with what I did. If I did anything, the colored people should get the credit."


After the Assassination

There is no newspaper record of what Parker did immediately following the shooting. But according to a September 10, 1901, news article, Parker appeared in the Pan American Exposition Mall, near the west gate, after the incident. A group of people surrounded him and he was asked to sell pieces of his waistcoat and other clothing. He recounted the story of the assassination and sold one button off his coat for $1.00.

In the time between the shooting and McKinley's death, Parker had numerous offers to work on the Midway at the Exposition recounting his participation. One company wanted to sell his photograph, but he refused. In a quote in the Buffalo Commercial, dated Sept. 13, 1901, Parker said, "I happened to be in a position where I could aid in the capture of the man. I do not think that the American people would like me to make capital out of the unfortunate circumstances. I am no freak anyway. I do not want to be exhibited in all kinds of shows. I am glad that I was able to be of service to the country."

Meanwhile, a Buffalo Enquirer article on September 10, recounted Detective Foster's report to the Secret Service headquarters in Washington stating that, " A Negro hit his [Czolgosz's] arm up": thereby, missing his third shot at the president.

News of the part Parker played in this national drama quickly spread. The Atlanta Constitution had a story in the September 10, edition with the headline " Testimonial to Jim Parker." The article related how the Negros of Savannah were planning to set up some type substantial testimonial for James Parker. The Constitution said that he was well known in the city but he had not been there for several years. On September 13 in the same newspaper an article entitled "Negros Applaud Parker" with the sub-heading "Mass Meeting in Charleston Hears Booker Washington." On September 12, to a mass meeting of 5,000 African Americans, Booker T. Washington delivered an address and resolution denouncing the reckless deed of the "red handed anarchist" and rejoicing that a southern Negro "had saved the President McKinley from death."

According to the Buffalo Courier, the Buffalo Club had requested that Parker speak there and the "Order of Don't Knock" considered admitting him to the group because of his brave actions with regard to the shooting of President McKinley. In Syracuse a benefit was given in his honor at Grand Opera House with standing room only crowds.

President McKinley died on September 14, at approximately 8 o'clock that night. His last words were reported to be "Good bye all; goodbye. It's God's way. His will be done." On September 15, Parker was one of the thousands of people who paid their respects when the President's casket was displayed at the Buffalo City Hall. It was said that he simply bowed his head and walked on.


The Trial

Prior to the trial, which began September 23, 1901, Parker was considered a major character in the assassination. However, trial itself clouded Parker's participation in the events of September 6, 1901. Not only was Parker not asked to testify, but those who did testify never identified Parker as the person who took the assassin down.

While he had quickly became a hero to the American people, Parker's stature unraveled just as quickly. In a September 13, article about Parker in the Buffalo Express, Mr. James Quackenbush, an attorney, stated that he had been standing six feet from the President. He said that he was looking to the right of President at the time the first shot was fired and looked to Czolgosz at the sound of the second shot. Quackenbush stated that he saw Mr. Gallagher, Mr. Ireland (both Secret Service men), Private O' Brian and the other men from the 73rd Seacoast Artillery, lunge forward toward Czolgosz who then went down. He also stated that he saw no one else seize upon Czoglosz except the Secret Service men and the artillerymen.

At the trail, Mr. Foster, the same Secret Service Agent who had earlier stated to have written a report that included the participation of a Negro in the capture of Czoglosz, denied that any Negro had been part of that capture.
During cross-examination by Mr. Titus he was asked," Did you see this colored man?"

Foster: "What colored man?"
Titus: "Parker?"
Foster: "I noticed a colored man in the line, but it seems to me he was in front of this man."
Titus: "Instead of behind him?"
Foster: "Instead of behind him. I never saw no colored man in the whole fracas."

John Branch, an African American porter in the Temple of Music and eyewitness to the shooting according to the record, did testify. He wasn't asked, if he saw any person of color in the event, but in the same vein, he did not mention there

Both the Buffalo Courier and the Commercial newspapers, responded in an indirect fashion to the controversy by stating that the evidence brought out at the trial proved that Parker had nothing to with the capture of Czolgosz. In addition, they accused Parker lecturing and receiving money for the "Parker Fund" under false pretenses.

The African American community was outraged because of Parker not testifying at the trial. It appeared to many that the Secret Service and the military were embarrassed that this man essentially brought the assassin down instead of them. Parker was asked to comment about not testifying. He said, " I don't say it was done with any intent to defraud, but it looks mighty funny, that's all."

The African American community held a ceremony to honor James Parker for his part in capturing Czolgosz and to inquire as to why Parker was not recognized as a participant in the assassin's arrest. The gathering was held at the Vine Street African Methodist Church on September 27, 1901. The church was packed and the general feeling, according to the Buffalo News, was that the audience was incensed that no credit or recognition was given to Parker.

The meeting was called to order by the Reverend E. A. Johnson, pastor of the church. Former pastor Reverend J. C. Aylmer led a hymn and gave a prayer. The discussion that followed resulted in the formation of a committee to inquire into the merits of Parker's case. The committee members were Rev. J. E. Nash, pastor of Michigan Baptist Church, Rev. J. C. Ayler, M. H. Lucas, W. Q. H. Aikens and J. W. Peterson.

While the committee went into private discussion, Parker's fellow named Shaw delivered a short testimonial on Parker. He said, "When I first entered this hall, it was my intention to go quietly way back and sit down…. Yesterday…. I … feel the inspiration of defense arise within me. The evident attempt to discredit Parker is a sign of conspiracy and should we fail to emphatically resent it, I claim we are a disgrace to our race. " When Jim Parker entered the hall, he refused all demands to make a speech and sat down amidst cheers.

The committee entered and read their position on the matter. "Whereas, there is a conflict of statements between the Associated Press and the Supreme Court of New York with respect or disrespect to the heroic act of James Parker in having thwarted the purpose of Leon Czolgosz in inflicting immediate death of our William McKinley. Whereas, we, the colored citizens of the City of Buffalo, N.Y. in this mass meeting assembled, that they very much regret the clash of statement in respect to the reported act of heroism on the part of James Parker, in that the Associated Press as a molder of public sentiment and as a herald of accepted facts…. Reported said heroic act both in America and Europe, and that the Supreme Court, the arbiter of justice …. Entirely eliminated said James B. Parker from the part he is reported by the press to have played in this tragedy."


Information about James Parker's life after the trial has not been forthcoming. My goal in this endeavor was to somehow connect Parker to the present. I was hoping to find the lead that would allow me to trace his family to the present. Perhaps, I can still accomplish this if his story makes people more aware of his importance or non-importance in American history. Despite this search, the "truth" is still not clear.

In conclusion, this little history of the stereotypical "invisible man" has reinforced my opinion that the "victorious" write history. While it is important for Black and White Americans to know that an African American had played such a brief but pivotal role in history of this country, that importance may be attributed to different reasons. For African Americans, Parker's story illustrates that African Americans were active participants in the events of United States history, despite America's reluctance to declare that fact. For white America, Parker's actions and the subsequent erasure or exposure of his deeds or misdeeds show how truth can be manipulated.

The spirit of James B. Parker still visits me because my job is only partly finished. Hopefully, the future will reveal more about this man and the actions of September 6, 1901 and beyond. Then perhaps, his spirit can rest.


Note

1. This photograph of James Parker appeared in the Buffalo Times, September 15, 1901, with the following caption: "James Benjamin Parker, The Negro Who Struck Down Leon Czolgosz, the Assassin of President McKinley, and Thus Became Famous in a Single Day." W. Cotter, photographer.


© 2001 Daryl Rasuli