AMHERSTBURG FREEEDOM MUSEUM
Parker Family Part 1 – Sharing Memories
At our recent Emancipation Celebration Dinner and Dance we honoured the late Alton C. Parker with our Legacy Hero Award. Because of this, we thought it was only fitting to highlight Alton and the Parker family in this month’s family history series. A big thank you to Dianne Steele-Beer, Cherie Steele-Sexton and Lynda Johnson-Smith for generously sharing information on their family members.
Alton Parker was the son of Ida M. Joiner and Immanuel/Emmanuel Crawford Parker who was born at the corner of McDougall and Wyandotte Street in 1865. According to Immanuel and Ida’s marriage record from January 2, 1896, Immanuel Crawford was the son of Crawford Parker, but his mother is not listed. The same occurs for Ida’s parents because her father is listed as “Joiner” and mother is “unknown.” At the time of their marriage, Ida was 21 and living in Detroit, while Immanuel Crawford Parker is listed as 30 and a labourer living in Windsor. The couple married in Detroit. Sadly, Immanuel’s parents passed away from smallpox when he was five years old. It was his grandmother who raised him until he was nine years old. It was then that Immanuel went to live with his Aunt America Jones and his Uncle Henry on Mercer Street.
Immanuel and Ida had seven children: Josephine Ardaina (1896), Earl Crawford (1898), Gladys Irene (1899), Madeline Mae (1902), Wilfred Lorenzo (1905/1906), Alton (1907) and Esther (1909). Immanuel and Ida also took in three infants and cared for them. Josephine married Earl H. Fields on June 17, 1922 in Detroit. According to their marriage record, Earl was the son of Jeff Fields and Ada Price, and Earl worked as a stockman. Josephine and Earl had two children: Earl Emanuel Fields, also known as ‘Pete’ and their daughter named Alice Ida (Fields) Stark.
Josephine’s brother Earl Crawford Parker, the next child of Immanuel and Ida, was born in February 1898, but sadly passed away at the young age of 29. His death record lists him as single with no occupation.
Earl’s sister Gladys married Cyrus Lanson Van Dyke who was born on October 28, 1898 and was the son of Cyrus Van Dyke, a labourer from Dresden, and Mary Kersey. At the time of their marriage, Lanson worked for the Ford Motor Company, but he also worked as the Assistant Market Clerk for the City of Windsor. Gladys was also the historian of the First Baptist Church in Windsor, but also the President of the church’s missionary society, secretary of the Sunday School and the head of the Home and School Parent Teacher Association at Mercer Street School. Gladys and Lanson’s children include Helen Mae (Van Dyke) Johnson, Anna Lavina (Van Dyke) Sims, Margy Imogene (Van Dyke) Shreve, Joyce Caroline (Van Dyke) Harris, Lanson David Van Dyke, Esther Hazel (Van Dyke) Nolan, and Jacqueline Rosemary Van Dyke, who sadly passed at six months old.
Helen Johnson worked for Revenue Canada for 19 years, while Imogene was home schooled during her early years and later graduated from the Flemming School of Cosmetology in Detroit, Michigan. Lanson David was a master mechanic and mentored many apprentices before retiring from Kipping Firestone in 2010. He also has a connection to the museum because his son David (married to Mon Yee) is a Board Director of the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. David’s siblings include Laurie (married to Karzell Dew), Shelly (Peter Wickett), Barb (Peter Richardson), Brock (Michelle) and Grant (Vanessa). Lanson’s sister Esther worked for Canada Man Power in Toronto for five years before transferring to the Windsor office.
Gladys’ sister Madeline married Hermett H. Wortham and had two children: Dr. Parker W. Wortham, who was a dentist in Detroit, and a daughter, Esther Jean (Wortham) Roberts, who was a school teacher. Her husband the Reverend Dr. Joseph L. Roberts served as the Senior Pastor of the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia for 30 years. Did you know in 1960, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. served as co-pastor at this church with his father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. Martin Luther King Jr. remained in that position until 1968 when he was assassinated. Following the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr.’s retirement in 1975, Dr. Joseph L. Roberts Jr. became the church’s fourth Senior Pastor.
Madeline Parker Wortham, at one time, worked for the YWCA, but also as an office manager and secretary at Bethel A.M.E. Church in Detroit for 35 years. After retiring from the church, she managed her son’s dental office for five years. Madeline’s husband Hermett Wortham worked as a postal clerk in Detroit, but the 1930 US Census also lists his occupation as railway porter. The 1930 Census also lists Madeline and Hermett as living with Hermett’s mother, Anna M. Hermett (widowed), whose home, as shown in the census, was worth $15,000.
Madeline’s brother, Wilfred Lorenzo Parker, was born on December 17, 1905, but sadly passed away a few months later on March 1, 1906 due to whooping cough and pneumonia. Wilfred’s sister Esther was born on August 31, 1909, but sadly passed away at the age of 20 from pulmonary tuberculosis. According to her death record, Esther was single and worked as a stenographer.
What we publish is not a complete history of any family and is based on the documents that are available. We welcome photos and information to fill in the gaps. See you next week for part 2.
Parker Family Part 2 – Legacy Hero
The next child of Immanuel Crawford and Ida Parker is Alton. Alton Parker’s dedication to the community and to young people is unmatched. Born in Windsor on July 3, 1907 to Immanuel Crawford Parker, who owned a confectionery store on Mercer Street, and Ida Mae Joiner, Alton was a lifelong resident of the city and went on to do so many great things for the community. He received an education from Mercer Street School, followed by Windsor Collegiate Institute, Lowe Technical School and finally at the Detroit Institute of Technology in Diesel Engineering. He served as a member of the Central Citizens’ Association, which called for City Hall to hire persons of colour because, at that time, there had never been a Black policeman in Windsor. Parker was a man of action and, as a result, joined the Windsor Police force on September 1, 1942, making him the first Black uniformed Police Officer in Windsor.
Previously, Alton Parker was a mechanic in Detroit, but took a pay cut to work for the Windsor Police. According to Alton, “I asked for a six-month leave of absence from my mechanic’s job, so I could join the police, open the door for my people and then go back to my other job.” He never went back and continued to make an impact in the community. Alton recalled the first few months as being pretty rough because he experienced resentment from some of the people he arrested, but also from some of his fellow officers. With time, Alton got a reputation of being a fair, no non-sense cop. He also made history in 1951 when he became the first Black detective in Canada. He dedicated 30 years to the police force.
In addition to the Central Citizens’ Association, Alton Parker served in other organizations including the Goodfellow’s Club, Windsor Male Chorus, Greater Windsor Foundation, Baptist Men’s Council, Alpha Group (built homes for the handicapped) and Brentwood. He was also a founding member of Apartment Living for Physically Handicapped Adults. The Goodfellows even presented Alton with an illuminated scroll and gold pen and pencil set to honour his community work and his 34-year commitment to the organization.
Alton’s wife Evelyn (Perkins) Parker attended Patterson Collegiate, Wayne State and Michigan State University. She was the Chairman and Director of the volunteer nurses of the Red Cross, in addition to vice-president of the Interdenominational Church of Greater Windsor and Treasurer of the Missionary Circle of the First Baptist Church. She was also a member of the Women’s Auxiliary of Hotel Dieu Hospital, President of the Community Friendship Group, and a Charter Member of the Hour-A-Day Study Club.
Have you ever heard of Uncle Al’s Kids’ Party in Windsor? If it were not for the Parker family, thousands of children who could not afford to go to camp would not have experienced a day completely devoted to them. Alton and Evelyn made it their mission to make sure children knew they were important and worth celebrating. One day, Alton and Evelyn saw small children playing at the park near their house in Windsor. It was then that Evelyn asked what they could do to help, and Alton suggested throwing a party for the local kids. The first party had 45 kids in attendance, but after 25 years they had over 1,000 children attending the Kids’ Party. The kids were given treats like sandwiches, ice cream and pop to enjoy, along with go-carts, clowns, puppet shows and pony rides. With the assistance of a few donations, The Parkers paid, out of their own pocket, for this event each year. According to Alton, “My wife and I don’t drink or smoke so we take that money we would have spent and put it aside for the children.” They hosted Uncle Al’s Kids’ Party every summer, beginning in 1966.
In 1976, to honour him, the park where this event was hosted, Broadhead Park, was officially renamed Alton C. Parker Park. Did you know, Alton Parker also received a Citizen of the Year Award from the Museum? When he was given the award, he said “I have received many awards over the years. But when it comes from your own community, it means so much more.” Among his other accolades, he was given the Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship, which was presented to him on June 30, 1976 at Queen’s Park. This medal was awarded to people who contributed to the common good of society, acting in a particularly generous way without the expectation of a reward. He was also named to the Order of Canada on 16 January 1976, received the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal, was recognized for his commitment to youth with a Harry Jerome Award and was given an Honorary Doctorate of Law from the University of Windsor. Alton Parker was a true gift to the community.
After Alton’s death, Uncle Al’s Kids’ Party was hosted by his family, including his granddaughter Cherie Steele who said “Instead of having grandpa here looking across the park at all his guests, I’m sure he’s looking down today.” At the museum’s Emancipation Celebration, we had the honour of presenting the Legacy Hero Award to Cherie, on Alton’s behalf, and she gave a moving speech recalling memories of her grandfather.
What we publish is not a complete history of any family and is based on the documents that are available. We welcome photos and information to fill in the gaps. See you next week for part 3.
The Parker Family Part 3 – History Makers
Alton and Evelyn Parker’s daughter, Freida, also made numerous contributions to the community. Shortly before she graduated from Hotel Dieu of the St. Joseph School of Nursing in Windsor, Black Canadian women were barred from attending nursing school. As a result of this discrimination, the case was taken to the Ontario Human Rights Commission and in 1948 Colleen L. Campbell and Marian V. Overton became the first Black women to graduate from Hotel Dieu. It was not long after, in 1950, that Freida and Cecile Wright would graduate, becoming the third and fourth Black students to accomplish this.
Unfortunately, they also experienced discrimination firsthand. A week before graduating, forty-two nurses from Hotel Dieu, including Freida and Cecile, went out to celebrate at Thomas’ Inn on Riverside Drive. The owner, Bertha Thomas, asked Freida and Cecile to leave because she did not want to “disturb” her other guests in the restaurant. They left without saying anything, but when Mayor Art Reaume, whose daughter was among the forty-two nurses, found out about the incident he said, “Let those who have been guilty of this most un-Christian act repent.” Additionally, a columnist R.M. Harrison criticized Bertha Thomas, saying it was ironic that she kicked out the same two nurses who cared for her while she was hospitalized. While in the hospital, she did not mind the treatment they provided, but took issue with them coming to her hotel.
Freida has said that during her 3 years of training she performed numerous tasks. She lived in residence at the Jeanne Mance building, which was next to the present location of Hotel Dieu and would rise at 5:30am and begin her work at the hospital by 7am. She would run errands, clean rooms, make beds, assist with baby deliveries, all while attending class. Did you know Freida also had to stencil the words “St. John’s Toilet Paper” on each roll of toilet paper for the St. John’s wing of the hospital, which was a wing for Windsor’s VIPs? She also patched rubber gloves and sharpened syringes. She said that working at the hospital opened her eyes to the ups and downs of life. It taught the forty-two nurses not to judge and to see the good in people. Freida mentioned one example that involved her mother making gingerbread cookies for all the “street people” on the second-floor ward. Her father even delivered the cookies to the hospital. She said experiences such as this shaped her life.
Freida’s achievements are no surprise considering her academic excellence. While attending Patterson Collegiate, she won the girls’ public speaking contest, in addition to awards for scholastics and athletics. She also graduated as class president of the entire student body, which was the first time that someone of African descent claimed that honour. The experience she gained as class president most likely transferred to her role as the secretary-treasurer of the Windsor and District Institute of Human Rights, which was an organization that drew attention to the problems of minority groups. While in this organization, Freida worked alongside executive members, Alex Maxwell and the late Dr. Howard McCurdy.
Freida married Eugene Steele who was the first Black firefighter in Windsor. What an amazing family of history makers! He was born in North Buxton on October 25, 1929 to Charles Irving/Ervin (NOTE: the spelling of Charles’s middle name is not consistent in documentation) and Laura Belle (Travis) Steele. Charles was born on June 12, 1900 in North Buxton to James E. Steele and Martha Harding. Charles’ birth record also lists the family’s residence as Lot 7, Concession 6, and lists James’ occupation as a farmer. The birth record for Laura Belle Travis lists her date of birth as November 25, 1903 in Chatham Township, but her last name is spelt as “Travese.” Laura Belle’s birth record also lists her parents as James Travis and Anna Eliza Robinson, but some sources say Robertson, such as Laura’s marriage record. Charles and Laura married on August 10, 1923. At the time of their marriage, Charles (23 years old) worked as a farmer, while Laura was a domestic and 20 years old.
Charles and Laura had four children: James Ervine, Olive (born December 17, 1926), Eugene Wilbur, and Dennis (born May 12, 1940). James Ervine married Ione Chase and they had one child, James Stanley who became a lawyer and had two children: Laura and Gregory. James Ervine’s sister Olive married John Olbey who was a millwright. According to Dianne Steele-Beer, Olive was the first person of colour to be hired as a customer service cashier at the A&P in Chatham. She was hired on November 23, 1963. Olive had three children: Craig, Pamela and Michelle. Olive’s brother Dennis had six children: Renee, Bradley, Curtis, Ryan, Jordan and Adam.
What we publish is not a complete history of any family and is based on the documents that are available. We welcome photos and information to fill in the gaps. See you next week for part 4 where we will share more about Eugene, Freida and their children.
The Parker Family Part 4 – “Give what you can to help those in need”
The fourth child of Charles and Laura Steele, as mentioned previously, is Eugene. According to his daughter, Dianne, Eugene played baseball for the North Buxton All Stars as a catcher and pitcher. There are rumours that he was scouted, but no documentation backs up this information. Eugene also loved to garden and golf, but also had a unique hobby of making hats and ties with pheasant feathers. In The Long Road by Charlotte Bronte Perry, it reprints a May 2, 1964 article from the Windsor Star which talks about Eugene’s hobby. The article, titled “Fine Feathers of Fine Birds Make Fine Hats,” says “Mrs. Steele has one of the largest assortments of hats in the neighborhood, and Mr. Steele the ‘sharpest’ ties. He explained that the whole thing started in November 1963, when his cousin asked him for some pheasant feathers … so that she could try to make a hat … ‘When my wife, Freida, heard that I was getting the feathers so that someone else could make a hat, she suggested … that I could make her one.’ Mr. Steele said a great deal of equipment and money are not required, but a lot of time and patience is.”
Eugene was also very active in the community, volunteering for several causes including the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, acting as president of the PTA at his children’s school, Dr. H.D. Taylor Public School in Windsor, tutoring kids in chemistry and physics, and also serving as a member of The Guardian Club, which brought attention to discrimination in Windsor and surrounding areas. Freida Parker Steele was also involved, in addition to Dr. Dan Hill, Allen Bourovoy, Dr. Howard McCurdy (Guardian Club’s first president), Dr. Wilson Head and J. Lyle Browning. This organization performed a series of test cases, particularly with discriminatory housing practices. For example, the group would send a Black Canadian couple to view a house or apartment, in addition to another couple, but they would be white. What they found was that the white couple would be offered the rental, while the former couple would be told that the property was no longer available. These test cases drew a lot of attention to discriminatory practices in the area.
Freida and Eugene had six children: Janice Gayle Steele, Alan Parker Steele, Dianne Lauralyn Steele-Beer, Cherie Lynn Steele-Sexton, Gina Mae Hughes and Deborah Anne Marshall. Janice worked as an artist (particularly with stained glass), but also as an art consultant and for an advertising company. Alan Parker Steele worked as a graphic artist, working in Toronto for several years, and did work for companies such as Five Alive and Ford. Dianne worked as a nurse, but later followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, becoming and officer with the Peel Regional Police. Did you know it was Alton who presented Dianne with her badge during the graduation ceremony? Cherie became a guidance councillor and special education teacher, while Gina followed in her father’s footsteps by joining the fire department in Detroit. Deborah went to St. Clair College to become a paralegal but did not go into that profession. She also attended Marvel Beauty School and St. Clair College for aesthetics. Deborah did so well that she was asked to teach courses, which she did before moving to Toronto where she also taught a few days a week.
Giving back to the community is an important lesson in the Parker family. Alton Parker learned from his mother Ida to “Give what you can to help those in need. Share what you’ve got,” which explains why Alton and his wife Evelyn devoted so much time and energy to Uncle Al’s Kids’ Party. Alton also took his children and grandchildren to Goodfellows where they would fill and deliver food baskets, which is something that Alton’s parents did with him. This was so that they could see the giving firsthand and this was a lesson that Alton passed on to his daughter Freida. For example, Freida was one of the first volunteers for Windsor’s Hospice, in addition to being a Board Director for the museum and on the Board of Maryvale.
Freida’s children have carried on this tradition as well. Dianne also volunteered at Hospice and Maryvale, in addition to the Red Cross, while Gina facilitates domestic violence sessions at her church and Cherie is involved with the international organization, Days For Girls-Windsor. With this organization, volunteers sew personal hygiene products for girls/young ladies in developing countries, but also disadvantaged females in the area. They also fundraise in order to buy materials.
The next generation of Freida and Eugene’s grandchildren include Steele Parker Hughes, Taylor Joie Marshall, William Niles Sexton III and Jefferson Travis Marshall.
What we publish is not a complete history of any family and is based on the documents that are available. We welcome photos and information to fill in the gaps. See you next week where we will celebrate another amazing family.