NKU-led project provides window into life at Parker Academy, 19th-century racially integrated school

Global expert to oversee excavation, archiving

NEW RICHMOND, Ohio -- During a dark time in American history, Daniel and Priscilla Parker created a “beacon of light” in New Richmond, Ohio.

The couple’s self-contained educational institution, the Parker Academy, opened in 1839 and was the first co-ed, racially integrated school in Ohio – and possibly in the nation. It operated until 1889, but its lessons in equality are still being learned today through an ongoing archaeological project, initiated by Northern Kentucky University, that’s continuing to uncover the school’s rich history.

NKU faculty and students began the first excavation of the Parker Academy site last May. The artifacts recovered from the site and documents on loan from the Parker Family Archive are helping to piece together the story of the unique school and the people who lived and worked there, according to Sharyn Jones, Ph.D., chair of NKU’s Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy Department.

The first phase of the project centered on collecting artifacts from the site and organizing the historical papers. Going forward, the project’s focus is shifting toward putting a human face on the Parker Academy.

Peggy Brunache, an international expert in historical archaeology and slavery, was recently awarded a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Foundation fellowship to help advance the project. Beginning in August, she will supervise excavations at the site and oversee the archival work of connecting historical documents to the artifacts. Provided

Thanks to a successful first year, organizers of the project have a lot to work, Jones said. NKU faculty and students have combed through thousands of documents and photos, including student papers, playbills for events hosted at the school and detailed personal journals. Over the past year, about 5,000 artifacts have been identified and cataloged, she noted.

“All of these artifacts and documents are a window into the daily life of all the individuals who were part of this incredible community,” said Jones. “Collectively, they tell such a compelling story.”

NKU announced more good news this month: The project has received a boost. Peggy Brunache, Ph.D., an international expert in historical archaeology and slavery, was recently awarded a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Foundation fellowship to help advance the project.

Beginning in August, Brunache will supervise excavations at the site and oversee the archival work of connecting historical documents to the artifacts. She’ll also be working with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a project partner, to build a permanent exhibit for the items recovered from the site.

Additionally, she is tasked with developing outreach and preservation efforts that will help place the site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Brunache, an instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland, has been involved with the project and spoken previously at both NKU and the Freedom Center regarding its international significance.

Parker Academy was a “beacon of light in a dark time in American history,” she said, and its reach goes far beyond Ohio.

Ahead of Their Time

When the Parkers founded the school in 1839, it was a radical idea for the time period. Ohio was a free state, but it was bordered by two slave states: Kentucky and West Virginia. And although slavery was not allowed, that didn’t mean that most people in the state believed slavery was fundamentally wrong on moral and humanistic grounds, Brunache said.

“The philosophical difference of pro- and anti-slavery sentiments that would become an integral banner for the Civil War was, in many ways, already being fought in Ohio 30 to 40 years prior. One could be anti-slavery but still not believe in racial equality,” she said. “Daniel and Priscilla Parker, along with their children, embraced both. As Baptists, their conviction in education for all (regardless of gender, class, religion or race) was a calling from God. This put their economic well-being at risk and, in certain cases, even their lives.”

In the early- to mid-1830s, Oberlin College in Ohio provided a space for co-education and racial integration. But that was for adults. Children attending college preparatory schools did not have the same opportunity until the Parker Academy in 1839, Brunache said.

“While they had the support of abolitionists and other like-minded individuals, many within their community did not agree in allowing white boys and girls to study alongside with their black counterparts,” she said. “The country as a whole would not have this opportunity for racial integration in education until the unanimous ruling of the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.”

Uncovering the Site’s Secrets

With more than 5,000 artifacts recovered from the Parker Academy, it’s difficult to pick out the most compelling items. An online blog set up for the project is home to a plethora of photos detailing unearthed artifacts, including buttons, coins, pottery and even toys. For those working on the project, favorite pieces from the site spark a connection, according to NKU undergrad Sage Boyers.

“Just holding something in your hand that belonged to and meant something to someone 120 years ago is surreal,” she said. “You instantly feel an emotional connection.”

Boyers said one of her favorite finds was an alcohol bottle hidden away from the school that may have belonged to a rebellious teen.

For Jones, some of the personal journals hit home. An excerpt from one she read revealed James Parker (Daniel and Priscella’s son) would wake his family up in the morning by playing the violin.

The most significant find, in Brunache’s opinion, is a pierced coin. In general, these rare artifacts are found in association with slave contexts or post-slave communities, she said. They were highly treasured and secreted items that were worn on the person for protection to ward off bad luck or bad magic.

“We have archival documents that reference some students of color were the biracial result of a white, male plantation owner and an enslaved woman. Some of these men chose to provide a life outside of slavery for their non-white children and sent them from slave states as far away as Texas to the Parker Academy in hopes of preparing them for a better life than allowed for their enslaved mothers,” she said. “To find one on the grounds of the school yard suggests this was most likely in the ownership of a student of color, given to them by a parent or loved one to protect them while so far away from home.”

However, there is another possibility. There are archival references that suggest the Parker Academy was (on at least one occasion) part of the Underground Railroad, Brunache said. If that was the case, the pierced coin could have been lost by a slave fugitive that had taken refuge temporarily on the school property, she said.

“Regardless of either scenario, the coin is one artifact that we can say has a specific black/biracial connection,” she said.

As the project continues and more artifacts are uncovered, more of the Parker Academy’s story – and its important role in history – is being brought to light. You can follow the project online on Instagram, @ParkerAcademyDig, or read more about it on a blog maintained by NKU students and faculty, parkeracademy.wordpress.com.

America's participation in racial slavery is complex and still painful for many Americans, Brunache said. But there are lessons that can be learned.

“One lesson we can take from the story about the Parker Academy is that social justice can take many forms,” she said. “Most of us are more familiar with the contributions of abolitionists who fought to dismantle the institution of slavery in the hopes of freeing and helping African-Americans. The Parkers were steadfast in their belief that education and the experiential condition of a racially integrated environment for boys and girls, collectively, was the key to ultimately transform society. Through education, all of us become truly free.”

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