Parker David Robbins (1834-1917)

Written By Benjamin R. Justesen

A Union Army veteran and delegate from Bertie County to North Carolina’s constitutional convention of 1868, Robbins represented the county for two terms in the N.C. House of Representatives as a Republican, elected by county voters in 1868 and 1870.  He later served as postmaster of Harrellsville, in Hertford County, for two years.

Yet his most enduring claim to fame was as inventor.  A carpenter and mechanic by trade, Robbins held U.S. patents for a cotton cultivator and a saw-sharpening machine, both granted to him in the mid-1870s.   Robbins also built houses in Duplin County, where he lived for the last four decades of his life, and where he built and piloted a steamboat for years along the Northeast Cape Fear River.

Born into a free, mixed-race family with Chowanoke Indian ancestry, Robbins was the oldest son of John A. Robbins, a Bertie County farmer, and an unknown mother.  He and his younger brother Augustus—also a state legislator in the 1870s—were apparently educated privately, perhaps at a Gates County school for Indians, according to one family account.  

By 1860, Parker was married to his first wife, Elizabeth (Betsy) Collins, and the owner of a 102-acre farm near Colerain, worth $250 in that year’s census, and on which he paid Confederate-era property taxes in 1862.  But his desire to fight for the Union Army led him to cross lines into Union-held territory near Norfolk, Virginia, where he enlisted in the Second U.S. Colored Cavalry unit. By the end of the war he rose to the rank of sergeant major, but little else is known about his military career, except that he was discharged at Hampton, Virginia, in 1866, apparently for health reasons.

Robbins returned to Bertie County, where he resumed life as a farmer and mechanic.  He quickly entered into post-War politics, and was selected as one of 15 black delegates to the North Carolina constitutional convention of 1868, whose product granted freed slaves the right to vote.  Like many of his delegate colleagues, Robbins was then elected as a Republican to the state House of Representatives in the first elections held under the new constitution in the spring of 1868.

Robbins represented Bertie County for two terms in the state House, serving during both terms as a member of the House Committee on Corporations.  During his first term, Robbins introduced an unsuccessful bill to outlaw distinctions based on a passenger’s skin color on steamboats (House Journal, 1869-1870, p. 122).  In 1869, he was also appointed as justice of the peace in Bertie County, by Gov. William W. Holden, to whose defense he came during Holden’s later impeachment, trial, and removal from office.

Robbins was among 17 black House members who signed an “Address to the Colored People of North Carolina,” published in the North Carolina Sentinel on December 30, 1870, which opposed plans by the Democratic majority to remove Holden from office.  Despite Robbins’ plea, Holden was convicted on six of the eight charges against him and removed from office in early 1871.

Although Robbins was reelected to the House in the 1870 elections, his second term was uneventful.  After returning to live in Colerain, Robbins turned his attention to improving the efficiency of his farm and sawmill, patenting two labor-saving devices: a cotton cultivator, for which he obtained a patent in 1874, and a saw-sharpening device, patented in 1876.  

He also remained active in Republican politics. In September of 1875, Robbins was appointed as postmaster at Harrellsville in Hertford County, among a handful of African Americans so designated in North Carolina by President Ulysses S. Grant.  Robbins held the Harrellsville position for two years until his resignation in October 1877, after the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes and the formal end of Reconstruction.

Robbins soon moved to Magnolia, in Duplin County, for personal reasons, perhaps because his first marriage was failing. By 1884, he and his first wife were divorced.  He built a number of houses in Duplin County, including two of his own, as well as a sawmill and a cotton gin; one of his personal homes was still standing a century later.  Robbins also built and operated a steamboat, the Saint Peter, which he piloted from Hallsville to Wilmington, down the Northeast Cape Fear River, for much of the remainder of his life.

In 1898, Robbins married his much younger second wife, Elisabeth (Bettie) Florence Miller, who bore him his only known son, Leo Parker Robbins, in about 1900, when Robbins was about 65 years old.  
At the age of 83, Robbins died in Magnolia, and was buried there.