Long-buried debris could hold lessons for today

May 12, 2015

Along US 52, near New Richmond are the remnants of a school that played a role in American history.  Until now, that school had been largely forgotten.

But a professor at Northern Kentucky University is hoping to uncover details about the Parker Academy by unearthing its debris and bringing its story to light.

James Parker was a Presbyterian minister who moved to southwest Ohio from New England in the early part of the 19th century.  He was also an abolitionist and may have been a member of the Underground Railroad.   

In 1839, Parker and his wife Priscilla started a school in Clermont County.  The Parker Academy was fully integrated with black and white students and men and women sharing the classroom. 

William Landon, Ph.D., says that was out of the norm for the day. 

Landon is chair of the Department of History and Geography at Northern Kentucky University (NKU).  He was to lead a team of 18 students Tuesday morning on an archeological dig at the site of the school, in partnership with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.  The dig near New Richmond involves students from several different disciplines in NKU’s undergraduate and master’s programs.

Landon has been studying the family’s archive, which includes personal letters, and it’s revealed a lot about who Parker was and why he founded this unusual school.

“It seems that he is someone who was very much driven by his desire to see equality in the United States," Landon says. "His partner, his wife, Priscilla, was also an exceptionally devout woman.  And we’re beginning to believe she was also a motivator behind a lot of his public actions.” 

James Parker founded the Parker Academy and insured it was fully integrated.
Credit Provided / Northern Kentucky University

Landon says that includes withholding communion from slavery supporters and defending his school against slave catchers who would cross the river into Ohio to abduct students and sell them into slavery.

But even though Landon says much is known about the lives of the Parkers through the family archive, it’s still important to sift through the dirt.

“When we’re relying solely on text, you realize people aren’t always truthful in what they leave behind in text," Landon says. "So what we can do is take the text left behind by the Parkers, left by students, left by family members and other correspondents who wrote to the Parker family, we can then compare that to the material culture left at the site.”

That “material culture” is any physical object left behind.  Bottles, buttons, coins and anything else the students at Parker Academy may have dropped.

“For our students who are involved in this, it’s going to be a way of making people who lived a century and half ago seem real," Landon says. "And it’s going to humanize them.  And that’s one thing, as historians and archeologists and public historians who are involved in this, it’s important for us always to emphasize that we’re studying our fellow human beings.  And it makes them come to life.”

Landon says after reading and researching so much, he thinks of James and Priscilla Parker as heroes whose lives still resonate today. 

“Anybody who’s paying attention to things that are happening in the United States right now realizes that there are strains that we’re facing; things that we have to address through collaboration, and through communication and education," Landon says. "If we go back to the 1830s, and realize that we’re talking about the United States in a period where human slavery is still legal…  We realize that it’s very difficult, but there are really decent humane people doing everything they can to try to make things better.”

Landon says the story of the Parkers has motivated him to try to be more active in his own community.

The on-site dig is expected to continue through May with a class on the Parker Archive in the fall.  There will eventually be a display on the academy at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.