Keeper Bio: Parker, William Major

Date of Service: 1876-1912

1855: Born in in April, on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

1870s: Marries his wife, Venus.

1876-1886: Served as Second Assistant at Assateague Lighthouse, VA. His beginning salary was $390/year and his ending salary was $400/year.

1886-1912: Served as Principal Keeper at Killock Shoal Lighthouse, VA. His beginning salary was $500/year and his ending salary was $510/year.

1912: William Major Parker died on duty January 22nd at the age of 57. He is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wattsville, Virginia.

William Major Parker Anecdotes:

William Major Parker was born April 1855 on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He was appointed 2nd assistant keeper at Assateague Lighthouse in August 1876, making $390/year. He received this appointment with help from a local politician named Thomas W. Taylor. The two men met when Parker attended Hampton Normal & Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), which was created to educate free black African Americans in the late 1800s. Parker would remain at Assateague for the next ten years as 2nd assistant until 1886 when he was promoted to 1st assistant.

In February 1886, Parker was promoted to the principal keeper at the newly constructed Killock Shoal Lighthouse, making $500/year. The position was originally offered to Samuel Quillen in January 1886, but Quillen would leave the position after just one month on the job. Local citizens, however, were not as happy with Parker’s appointment, feeling it should be offered to a local.

In a local newspaper, one critic wrote about Parker and the man who was appointed to replace Parker at Assateague Lighthouse, “We are informed that one if not both of these men are utterly incompetent, knowing nothing of lighthouse work and cannot tell even in what direction the wind is blowing. Such are the men appointed instead of our own citizens, whose life work has been such as to prepare them to fill efficiently the places, which should belong to them. It is to be hoped that an examination will be given these men – so that it may be seen to what folly the civil service laws, enforced without regard to party obligations or efficiency, lead.” Parker did not let any of this bother him, as he and his wife Venus, made their home in the Killock Shoal Lighthouse, a square, screwpile lighthouse in the Chincoteague Bay. There, he continued to complete his duties by keeping everything in working order.

Things were quiet for the next 19 years until Parker made a trip to Chincoteague Island to purchase supplies in October 1905. Little did Parker know that there had been a shooting earlier on the island. Local officials were forming a posse to catch the suspect, and Parker was required to join that posse. This put Parker in a quandary, as he knew that under government regulations, he was not allowed to leave the lighthouse for an extended period. Parker chose not to join the posse and returned to the lighthouse.

When Parker returned to Chincoteague Island for another supply run a month or so later, Parker was arrested for not joining the posse. Parker tried desperately to explain that he was not allowed to leave the lighthouse, to no avail. The Lighthouse Board would come to defend Parker to the local officials, who ultimately dropped the charges.

After keeping the light shining at Killock Shoal for 25 years, the night of January 23, 1912, was a different story. Parker’s wife Venus had been on shore visiting friends for a few days when Venus and the locals felt something was wrong because the lighthouse was completely dark. A few locals decided to ride a boat out to the lighthouse along with Venus. Arriving at the dark station, they climbed up the ladder into the house and found Parker in the bedroom dead on his knees with his head laying on the bed. Because Parker was such a man of faith, many people say he died while praying.

Venus Parker was devastated, but she also realized the importance of keeping the light shining. After working alongside her husband all of those years, she knew what needed to be done, so she stayed to maintain the light until another keeper was appointed in March.

William Major Parker died at the young age of 57 and spent 36 of those years in the lighthouse service. He is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wattsville, Virginia. In the Times-Dispatch newspaper out of Richmond, Virginia, they wrote, “he was the local leader of his race.”

 Sources:, Chesapeake Chapter Database, “He Died on His Knees”, Lighthouse Digest, July 2010



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