In an institution still largely segregated and even unwelcoming to its African-American Members in the 1930s, Harry Parker’s six decades of loyal service to the House engendered respect and affection. The New York Times described the House Chamber’s 1937 celebration of Parker as the “most extraordinary tribute ever paid” to an African-American in the House up to that point. However, it was Parker’s illustrious “origin” that first endeared him to Members of Congress and the local media.
Harry’s life story was one of fact and fiction. Parker claimed that he was born a slave between 1856 and 1865, “I don’t know how old I am, but I was born at Mount Vernon.” His apocryphal tale also boasted that an ancestor was one of President George Washington’s personal servants. Finally, Harry proclaimed, he had left Mount Vernon on the back of a milk wagon and missed his ride back to the plantation, causing him to find work shining shoes in the Capitol.
Parker’s familial ties to Mount Vernon are not disputed. Harry’s father, Edmund Parker, came to Mount Vernon as an enslaved adolescent with John Augustine Washington II—a nephew of George Washington—in 1841. Edmund worked at Mount Vernon until the 1870s. The Parker family moved to Alexandria and later Pennsylvania, but returned to Washington in 1882. According to U.S. Census records, Harry was born in either Pennsylvania or Virginia in September 1871. Although the family remained in Washington, Edmund returned to Mount Vernon to work as a ceremonial guard in front of Washington’s tomb, where he regaled tourists with stories about antebellum Virginia.
It is unclear when Harry started working in the Capitol, but he had already held a variety of jobs before committee Chairman William McKinley of Ohio hired him as an assistant for the Ways and Means Committee in the late 1880s. Parker served as the committee’s doorkeeper, prepared notepads, filled ice-water coolers, and tended to the needs of committee members. He remained on the staff despite the changes in party control. Parker recalled, “I’ve known many of the great ones from President McKinley on down,” including Speaker Nicholas Longworth of Ohio and Sereno Payne of New York, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
Upon his retirement in 1937, the House unanimously voted Parker an annual pension of $1,260. The bill’s sponsor was Lindsey Warren of North Carolina, chairman of the House Committee on Accounts and, ironically, just a few years before, a proponent of segregating the House Restaurant in a widely-publicized dispute with Representative Oscar De Priest of Illinois. Representative Warren waxed eloquent that Parker “has walked countless miles around these corridors . . . ministering to the committee he loves so much.” Warren told his colleagues, “Harry needs a rest, and who is there who would keep him from it in the fullness of his years?” Warren concluded his stirring oration, by crediting Parker as being “as much a part of this institution as is the dome over this building.”
At that moment, Members stood and applauded Parker’s service for one full minute while he looked on from the House Gallery. Illinois Representative Arthur Mitchell, the second African-American elected to Congress in the 20th century, also spoke from the floor noting that Parker, “rendered distinguished service [to the House] and has shown himself to be worthy of the respect, the confidence, and the admiration of this great body.” After his retirement, Harry Parker returned to the Capitol to visit Members and to watch the opening of new Congresses until his health declined. At roughly 80 years of age, Harry Parker died on August 21, 1951, in Freedmen's Hospital (now Howard University Hospital) in Washington, D.C.
Sources: Scott E. Casper, Sarah Johnson’s Mount Vernon: The Forgotten History of an American Shrine (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008): 185–187; Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900: Washington, Washington, District of Columbia, Roll T623, page 20A, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 28 July 2014); Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910: Precinct 8, Washington, District of Columbia, Roll T624_153, page 13B, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., http://search.ancestrylibrary.com (accessed 28 July 2014); Baltimore Sun, June 20, 1935; Washington Post, July 14, 1937; New York Times, July 14, 1937; Washington Post, October 17, 1937; Washington Post, July 31, 1940; New York Times, January 20, 1941; Washington Post, August 21, 1951; Congressional Record, House, 75th Cong., 1st sess. (13 July 1937): 7117–7120.Follow @USHouseHistory