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Dig It: Humanities Project Wins Major Science Award

Dr. Brian Hackett and Dr. William Landon, NKU History Dept.
photos by Rodney Wilson


By Rodney Wilson
Editor, NKU Magazine

In 2014, Kentucky's then-governor Steve Beshear declared September Kentucky Archeology Month, officially recognizing those who poke shovels into bluegrass to dig for relics of yesteryear.

NKU's Dr. Sharyn Jones, like her namesake of the Spielberg franchise, is one such archeologist. But her partners in the Parker Academy Project—a transdisciplinary team that spans NKU’s history and archeology departments—want you to know there’s more to preserving the past than adventurous trips to dig sites.

“Listen, archeology is sexy,” says Dr. Bill Landon, an associate professor of history trained in manuscript studies and archives. “It really is. Indiana Jones and all that—it just automatically happens. So you’ve got the fun of being out in the field, but then after that it’s all polishing, cleaning, categorizing, then organizing.”

“But working in the archives is kind of like an archeological dig,” adds Dr. Brian Hackett, associate professor of history and director of the public history program. “You come across a document or something, then the more you get into it, the more amazing it tends to be.”

Landon and Hackett are gathered in a meeting room on the fourth floor of Landrum Academic Center, the large conference table before them spread with handwritten letters, stacked journals and a variety of lidded file boxes. Despite feigned offense over archeology’s long shadow, the two of them are smiling, eager to talk about the Parker Academy Project’s recent receipt of a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (NSF REU) grant to enhance the work they and Jones have partnered on for the past few years. The grant is one of two recently announced NSF grants given to NKU researchers, the other awarded to associate professor of chemistry Dr. Lili Ma for her work, “Unusual Oxidation and Domino Reactions via Palladium-catalyzed a-Heteroarylation of Ketones.”

“This is the largest grant that’s been won by any humanities department at NKU,” says Landon. “And we’re incredibly happy that it ended up being an NSF grant, because it’s very, very rare for a humanities proposal to get funded by the National Science Foundation. Our hope is this will show the broader community, as well as the NSF, that the humanities are incredibly relevant when it comes to the training that students receive in a program like ours.”

Scroll through images from the Parker Academy archives.

Scroll through images from the Parker Academy archives.

"The backbone of this school was Priscilla Parker," says Dr. Brian Hackett of the school's founder. "She’s the one who insisted they include everybody."
Daniel Parker, a traveling minister, co-founded the Parker Academy with his wife, Priscilla, in 1839.
The NSF REU grant will allow the Parker Academy project to hire 12 to 15 undergraduate students to edit, categorize and digitize the expansive collection of letters, journals and other items.
"It’s one thing to talk about the work that people do," says Dr. Bill Landon. "It’s another to have a document in front of you, written in their own hand, in their own pen."
The three-year grant will enable the project to move forward with processing boxes of collected artifacts.
A letter of apology from Noah Hunt to headmaster James Parker, written just before the former was lynched for killing his elderly landlord in a fit of mental illness. 
Noah Hunt, an African American graduate of the racially integrated Parker School, took pleasure in drawing houses he thought he might like to own. The Parkers helped him find work and shelter after he left their school.
A hand-written envelope from the Parker Academy of New Richmond, Ohio.
The Parker Academy archive incudes journals, letters and various items dating back to the 19th century.

Little School, Big Ideas

Begun in 2015, the Parker Academy Project is a partnership between NKU’s archeology and history departments and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to excavate a historic school site in the village of New Richmond, Ohio. The Parker Academy was established in 1839 by traveling minister Daniel Parker and his wife, Priscilla. Priscilla was responsible for running the school, and it was she who determined the school’s promise to educate anyone, regardless of race or sex.

“You could make a pretty strong case that this was the first school in America that was open to women and blacks under the same roof,” says Hackett. “Priscilla lived up to the belief that all men were created equal: You could be a man in charge, you could be a woman in charge, you could be an African American in charge. That was pretty damn freaky when you think about the time period.”  

The impact of the little academy—it comprised just three buildings: a men’s dorm, a women’s dorm and the schoolhouse (only the women’s dorm remains)—was significant. “We’ve figured out five different universities that exist today were influenced by people who went on from this school,” says Hackett. “And those schools are unique in their acceptance of all.” Landon and Hackett cite Henry Clark Corbin, who served as Adjutant General of the U.S. Army and advised multiple presidents, as an example of the school’s influence on national history.

And the project leaders expect similarly great things of their students studying the school’s impact.

“The emphasis on education and equality is important,” says Landon. “We’re trying to train students how to deal with real-world problems today. I think being able to look at society and realize how important education was to overcoming the problems of the 19th century is very important right now.

“We’re trying to help students become educated, helpful citizens. That’s the number one thing. Just look at the number of students who went on to have tremendous impact on greater American society in the 19th century. I hope some of the students involved in this grant will go on to do really great things outside of their undergraduate career.”

An Education for the Archives  

Famous generals notwithstanding, Landon and Hackett don’t yet know where every student ended up—learning about the Parker Academy’s long list of students will require organizing the archives, editing documents, researching found information and, eventually, digitizing the collection for widespread availability. And that’s where the NSF grant comes in, allowing the team to hire 12-15 undergraduate workers to train and assist in going through the amassed material.

“We’re hoping to identify some students we can work with throughout the duration of the project,” says Landon. “We really believe that, if we can do that, these students will have training that will be fairly close to a high-level graduate training. And it will help them understand various environments in the workplace eventually. Your boss gives you a set of complicated tasks, and you think, ‘What am I going to do with all this?’ Well, these students will be trained in working with complicated, and apparently unrelated, details and making sense of those things.

“I think the students who come out of this program are going to be heads and shoulders above their colleagues.”

Visit the Parker Academy Project online to learn more.