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Inez C. Parker: Rolla's Poet Laureate
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By Ryan Reed
Inez C. Parker circa 1902
Inez Corene Parker was an African-American writer from Rolla, Missouri whose verse was widely circulated at the turn of the twentieth century. She was one of the first African-Americans to attempt to make a living from her literary work. Parker’s poems gained national exposure and were widely circulated in journals and newspapers in Chicago, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, etc. She traveled throughout the country giving recitals of her literature and gained several prominent admirers including Secretary of State John Hay. However, very little is known of this early African-American professional writer who lived her entire life in Rolla.
Life began for Inez Parker in a small frame house at the northeast corner of Fourth and Cedar Streets on January 4, 1876. Both of Inez’s parents, John Parker and Sedonia Blackwell, were former slaves. Her father was a native of Georgia who was working as a shoemaker in Texas County, Missouri prior to his marriage. Sedonia, born in Missouri, was employed as a housekeeper in the home of attorney Edward A. Seay in 1870. After their marriage in 1872, the small home where Inez was born was constructed for the Parkers. After the birth of Inez, the Parker family continued to grow and included ten children.
As a child, Parker attended the segregated public schools in Rolla. Afterward, having the advantages of some private instruction, she graduated from the high school in Rolla. Her education also included instruction in music, French and Latin. After completing her studies, she was employed to teach elocution and music by several members of the African-American community in Rolla.
Parker’s first professionally published poem was “Hope” which appeared in a Chicago literary journal circa 1898. The publication of the poem was the result of a contest held by the journal. Over forty individuals, all of whom were white, submitted entries. After the publication of “Hope”, Parker was contacted by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and asked write verses for publication. In 1899, five of Parker’s poems were published in the newspaper.
During this time, the style of Parker’s poems began to change. Much of her work was authored in conventional English, while some were rendered in an African-American dialect. The latter structure was popularized by Paul Laurence Dunbar. A contemporary of Parker’s, Dunbar was an African-American poet, novelist and playwright who achieved national fame. The use of dialect popularized his writings so much that editors refused to print his more traditional poems and demanded he focus on dialect. Dunbar came to believe that the marketability of dialect poems was demeaning and it inflicted irrevocable harm to the African-American community. However, Dunbar didn’t consider his dialect poetry to be inferior to his Standard English writings. Modern scholars of Dunbar’s writings have begun to discover the humanity of his dialect work. Most of Parker’s published poems in 1899, such as “’Manicaption Day” and “When Daddy Plays de Banjo” were written in a dialect form.
Parker’s work gained popularity and her verses were widely circulated. Her work appeared in The Broadax (Salt Lake City, Utah), The Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont), The New York Age (New York City), The Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, Minnesota) and many more. The Commoner of Lincoln, Nebraska was so impressed with Parker’s work they gave her a year-long subscription in 1906. Due to her increased popularity, Parker was requested by various organizations to recite her poems and short stories. She appeared before sold out audiences, black and white, in St. Louis between 1904 and 1907.
After 1910, mentions of Parker and her writings in national publication virtually vanish. In 1910, she is listed in the federal census as living with her mother and earning money through elocution recitals. By 1920, she is still living with her mother at Fourth and Cedar Streets. At the time, Harold Griggs was boarding with the Parkers. Within a few years, Griggs and Parker were married. Harold worked as a janitor and Inez is continually listed as doing “house work” after their marriage. After the death of her mother in 1929, the Griggs continued to live at Forth and Cedar Street until the death of Inez on December 20, 1950.
Inez Parker briefly garnered national acclaim yet never attained distinction in the literary world. She penned a large body work, written in standard English and African-American dialect, which has been largely forgotten. However, the success of this Rolla native at a time when opportunities for African-Americans were extremely limited should not be forgotten. Parker was one of the few African-American at the time that was able to make a living through her writing. Parker was the precursor to a new generation of African-American writers, including Langston Hughes, who embraced vernacular speech of their time and place. The contributions and influence of this local writer on the larger literary world should be remembered and cherished by the citizens of Rolla and beyond.
The morn was dreary and gray with mist,
By faintest glimmer of gold unkissed;
But Hope looked forth with a vision bright,
And whispered low, with a smile of light:
“Oh heart, dear heart, be of good cheer;
The noon will be fairer-never fear!”
Wind-swept the noon came, wet with rain,
All sighs and shadows, all tears and pain;
But Hope looked forth with a steadfast eye,
And whispered low as the wind shrieked by:
“on, heart, faint heart, be of good cheer;
At eve ‘twill be fairer-never fear!”
The shrouded sun found a cloudy tomb,
And without a star came a night of gloom;
But Hope looked forth with a vision bright,
And whispered low, with a smile of light:
“Oh, heart, sad heart, be of good cheer;
The morn will be fairer-never fear!”

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