The Donaldson Family, Friends of Freedom, Friends of the Parkers

Slavery was, and continues to be part of the modern world; from 19th century plantations in the American South, to sex trafficking, which is only one of slavery’s many recent manifestations.  Yet, there are, and always have always been people, moved by their belief in the equality of all people, who have fought against slavery and those who perpetuate and profit from it.  In our own region, the Greater Cincinnati area, there are many such people, and we can find them by exploring local abolitionist efforts and free black communities of the past. These histories have potential to inform and bring inspiration to the struggle for social justice in the contemporary society.

The village of New Richmond, Ohio is becoming well known for the work of the Parker family, the Academy which they founded, the enlightened students who they trained, and the surrounding community that was full of like-minded people. For example, the Underground Railroad network was alive and well in and around New Richmond in the mid-1800s, and the Parkers were a part of it.

The Parker family’s abolitionist kinship network included another local family that was active in its support of the Underground Railroad; and that family contributed a great deal to the fight for human equality. Their efforts aimed to bring an end to slavery—and we know them as the Donaldsons.

property and Donaldson House - 17
An old photo with a view of the Donaldson home and property, the Ohio River can be seen in the background.

The Donaldson home in New Richmond still stands and it is a landmark for antebellum resistance efforts.  Mr. Thomas Donaldson (1805-1894), a Welsh immigrant, a business owner, and a resident of New Richmond married Susanna Parker, the daughter of Daniel and Priscilla (Pollitt 2012). Their union and friendships brought these two abolitionist families together.

outdoor fire place Donaldson House - 24
Original Donaldson-era fireplace from an outbuilding near the main house.

Specifically, Thomas Donaldson helped to facilitate the publication of the antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist in New Richmond. Moreover as an owner of a mercantile business, he made efforts to sell only free labor goods. While he ultimately gave up on this due to the cost and difficulty of obtaining what we would now call “fair trade items,” Thomas Donaldson continued to organize and support an extensive and successful underground railroad operation.

view of Ohio River and KY Donaldson House - 11
A view of the Ohio River and Kentucky from the Donaldson home. This is where Thomas Donaldson would signal people on the KY to cross the river to freedom, according to family records.

Some of the Parker Academy Research team (including faculty and students) were invited to visit the Donaldson family home by its current owner. The photos below act as a window into the past, and they illustrate how the Donaldson’s and Parker’s legacies live on in the present…

The photo on the left shows the original Donaldson fire place in the living room. This feature is still in tact in the Donaldson home.

winter kitchen fire place Donaldson House - 10
The Donaldson winter kitchen with the original hardware in the fire place.
Audubon wallpaper Donaldson House - 4
The Audubon bird wall paper is still in excellent condition in the Donaldson House’s entry hallway.


Reference Cited:

Pollitt, Bethany Richter 2012. The Antislavery Movement in Clermont County. MA Thesis, Wright State University. Document available at:



 Text by Sharyn Jones and William Landon


The Parker Academy Project is Featured in the Spring/Summer 2016 NKU Magazine

Parker Academy in Norse Mag
Pages 22-23 from NKU Magazine Spring/Summer 2016

Explore the significance behind the Clermont Academy and what was found on site! Catch a glimpse into what NKU students, faculty, and volunteers have been working on! There are many great photos, quotes, and artifacts presented, follow the link to discover more!

Special thanks to NKU magazine and Timothy Sofranko for the wonderful article and photos!

Everlasting Lessons from the Clermont Academy


Many lessons were learned at the Clermont Academy, past and present. Here are some thoughts from a few students that have learned a lot not only about archaeology and history, but about the greater impact the Parkers had on the community and beyond.

I knew that even if we didn’t uncover anything that regular people would consider spectacular or historic, what we were doing there meant something…because what they did there years ago meant something. –Erica Zapp

Material culture allows us to interpret evidence to tell stories. Material culture can tell us so much about daily life, the true past. –Megan Marshall

The wonderful thing about studying the Clermont Academy is the marriage between history and archaeology. These go hand in hand, and together give us a wider image as well as pin point items to specific stories and in some cases people.

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Being a history major there is nothing better than finding out the story of a certain item belonging to someone. As it gives it a chance to go back and look at records to see if we can find something about someone relating to a particular item. –Tyler Stoeckel

Historical archaeology helps fill in gaps that are created by history, such as the lives of ordinary people. Historical archaeology can confirm or deny things claimed in history. -James Harrington

The material culture is what gives the school life, even long after it has been closed. The idea of walking on the grounds over a hundred years after it opened and finding artifacts that were used at the location is what helps to give people a better understanding on the everyday life of the people at the academy. –David Lantz

Students also had the opportunity to view archives from the Clermont Academy. Reading words once written by those who attended, worked, and even built the Clermont Academy was an unforgettable experience. After working on site students were able to make connections between the artifacts and the ads, diaries, and other documentation.

1839 Ledger

During our trip to the archives we were able to look at the pictures, journals, flyers, coins, and other artifacts from the Parker Academy site. One of the journals that I was reading through read “Property of James Parker”. This journal states the school year, the names of boys registered, the names of girls registered, and if they had paid. This was extremely interesting and important to myself. Not only do we have a record of how many attended, but we know who attended. The students could have great historical futures after the Parker Academy, and we have their names to attempt to follow their history to the Parker Academy and their lives afterwards. –Tyler Aragon

While the archives do play a role, the artifacts we find give what is called tangible evidence to the school. Tangible evidence is an artifact that you can see or touch, and understand through museum interpretation. –David Lantz

Above all, students were excited about finding artifacts while making emotional connections to them. There are stories behind each and every artifact, and this certainly does not go unnoticed. From every brick fragment to doll piece, each were once held by those who once walked the very ground being recovered.

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A set of artifacts that help explain simple domestic stories is the pieces of burnt brick found at the site. The burnt pieces of brick, along with the layers filled with ash, coal, and charcoal, and the layers of clay found at the site, indicate that the people made bricks at the Academy site in order to build the Academy. The fact that the burnt pieces of brick were still on the site shows that even when the students overcooked the bricks, they still used them to build the Academy even though they weren’t perfect. This also shows how self-reliant people were (and probably had to be) at the time. They had to know how to make the bricks and build the Academy themselves, as opposed to hiring someone else to do it. –James Harrington

Of all of the artifacts found at Parker Academy, the most interesting for me are the pieces of a porcelain doll(s). Why would a child’s toy be at an academy for teenagers? It could be a belonging of one of the students that attended the academy that decided to keep it for old time’s sake. Sort of like the teddy bears some people keep from their childhood. It could also have been a gift from one of the students to a runaway slave child. I can only imagine the trauma, both physical and psychological, of trying to escape from slavery. –Wyatt Morgan

During the excavation, our group found some marbles, as well as some glass, which was from a suspected whiskey bottle. This leads us to believe that the teenagers who attended the Parker Academy high school did not have the high moral standards that were expected of them. But, it is relatable in a way that reminds us that we are not all that different from the people who lived in those days. Even finding something as simple as a button or a sewing hook and needle can tell us something as simple as ‘they were probably making their own clothes’. –Erica Zapp

Through our research and dig, we have discovered a lot of pottery, some stoneware, some earthenware, and some specialized pieces. We have figured out that these were used for eating and drinking, which means that the school most likely had to provide their own dinnerware, and was probably from the family. Given the intricate designs found on them, it seems these were not just your everyday dinnerware dishes. As the school was trying to hide what it was doing, with the “enslaved” people, we can only guess that there wasn’t a lot of dining ware and so a lot of it was from the families own kitchen that they gave out. –David Lantz

It is not only about what is being found or read through, but how they connect back to the bigger meaning. There is no doubt that the Parkers had an everlasting effect on education, but they also brought light in America’s darkest time. They show us what it means to be a community and human beings.

Historical Archaeology of Identity at the Clermont Academy

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Text by Sage Boyers

Through the artifacts uncovered thus far, there is so much to be said about how these ‘small items’ had a big impact, and how they give a glimpse to the students’ identity, as individuals and a community. Although the concept of identity is complicated and many times neglected, it still exists within all of us, including the Clermont Academy students. It’s the words unspoken that are the ones worth listening to. Just picking up an artifact from the ground isn’t enough to tell a complete story; in fact it is far from it. The systematic uncovering of artifacts is what archaeology is all about, from every layer and level, to the composition of sediment, it is with archaeology that the full story can be told. What can the artifacts we find tell us about who these students were as individuals and a community?

Many of the artifacts found on site have helped to show this idea of resistance. Looking at toy pieces such as doll parts, marbles, game pieces and harmonica fragments, it is obvious that even through dark times these students were still able to be young at heart. Buttons are also significant as it symbolizes ones personal identity. Not only can a button represent ones interest or style, such as the dog button found, it can also represent ones status and occupation, such as the Civil War button. Clothing is a huge expression of identity; although many students more than likely couldn’t afford new clothing, little personal touches, such as buttons, suggest some form of personal status and pride.

Dog loop button (left). Civil war button (right). Photos by Liza Vance.

It is easy to forget that these students came from different age demographics, and artifacts have been found that merge these gaps. Clay marbles have been found around the site, suggesting that even in dark times students were able to still find joy in the little things in life. Slate tablets and pencils were found around the site. Slate was relatively inexpensive and could be used again and again. It was perhaps provided by the school and shared among the students. With other game pieces, doll faces, and other various items being found, it is easy to sense that the students studied, worked, and played together as a community and friends. Many different styles and makes of ceramics were found, including porcelain, stoneware, transfer ware, earthenware, and more. These would have been traded and collected from many different areas, and certainty did not belong to a set, which suggests that they were utilitarian and not specialized or correlated to segregated meals. Chicken and pig bones have been found, a common source of meat for meals, which shows us that everyone at the academy were, for the most part, consuming similar dishes which also helps to show unsegregated meals. Breaking of bread among people is the fastest and easiest way to unite and identify with others, and by investing foodways and food remains at the Clermont Academy we can better understand their form of egalitarianism.

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Cleaned artifacts. Charcoal, ceramics, bone, and slate.

The artifacts collected and archival data both suggest that equality was the most important lesson taught at this incredible institution. The Parkers gave every person an equal chance for an excellent classical inspired education. They carried this ideology everywhere they went, and helped to expand their forward thinking to other institutions around. This is not just local history, but national history. Their acceptance policy was what sparked a revolution in the school systems almost a hundred and twenty years later.

Press Release – News Update

International expert Dr. Peggy Brunache joins

NKU’s Parker Academy excavation project

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Northern Kentucky University’s excavation of Ohio’s first co-ed, racially-integrated school has resumed this summer under in collaboration with international scholar Dr. Peggy Brunache, who has been awarded a prestigious Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Foundation fellowship to help advance the project.

In May 2015, NKU faculty and students began the first-ever excavation of the Parker Academy site, located in New Richmond, Oh. The artifacts unearthed and documents uncovered are eventually destined for a permanent exhibit at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.PeggyBrunache

“I am delighted to be able to return to Northern Kentucky University to help continue and advance this important work,” Brunache said. “Parker Academy was a beacon of light in a dark time in American history, and it is important to bring its lessons to light once again.”

Brunache is an international expert in historical archaeology and slavery, and a senior collaborator on the Parker Academy project. Last September, she supervised a dig at the site and led educational events at NKU and the Freedom Center regarding the international significance of the project. She is an instructor at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

Over the coming year, Brunache will supervise excavations at the site; oversee the archival work of connecting historical documents to the artifacts unearthed; and work with experts at the Freedom Center to build the permanent exhibit. She will also develop outreach and preservation efforts to help pave the way for the site to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

This is the first time NKU has received support from the Ford Foundation, an initiative of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Just 20 Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships are awarded each year.

“We are thankful that the Ford Foundation recognizes the significance of this project and the expertise that Peggy brings,” said Dr. Sharyn Jones, chair of NKU’s Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy Department. “We hope to expand the international nature of the work, while also strengthening the community’s connections to the project.”

Last year, work on the project focused upon retrieving artifacts from the site and organizing the historical papers on loan from the Parker Family Archive.

That work continues, but the project’s focus will now move toward putting a human face on the Parker Academy by using those artifacts and documents to tell the stories of specific individuals who lived and worked there. Brunache will help shape those efforts.

“The more we find, the more special and unique we realize this place really was,” said Dr. Brian Hackett, director of NKU’s Public History Program. “We want to collect these stories and make them human.”

NKU faculty and students are also using 21st century storytelling techniques to showcase their work on the project through an Instagram account, @ParkerAcademyDig, as well as a blog:

The Parker Excavation Class Wraps Up….

Last week was our final week of excavations for the Parker Academy class. Three weeks went by quickly, but we found some interesting new information and fascinating data was gathered that will help tell us about daily life at the academy.

Dave, James, and Erica draw stratigraphy under the men's dorm.
Dave, James, and Erica draw stratigraphy under the men’s dorm. Photo by Eric Goetz.
Liza and Ian continue to excavate down in unit BB62. Photo by Eric Goetz.
Liza and Ian continue to excavate down in unit BB62. Photo by Eric Goetz.


All the students wrote several reflective essays about their experiences excavating, working in the laboratory with the artifacts, and examining the archives. We will post excerpts from some of them here in the coming weeks. Here is the first by Public History Graduate student Rachel Briedis:


The Clermont Academy: An Archaeological and Historical Outlook

Founded in 1839 by the Parker family, the Clermont Academy operated as a private secondary school educating students of all races and genders.[1] A multi-racial institution in the midst of segregation, the Clermont Academy received an inhospitable reception from nearby local communities. Unfazed by community backlash and driven by their belief in equality, the Parker family successfully operated the Clermont Academy for fifty-three years.[2]

In the 1830s, private secondary schools called academies appeared in order to fill the educational void between primary school and university. However, the opportunities for women and African Americans to receive excellent secondary educations remained limited. Understanding education to be the great equalizer, Pricilla Parker, a strong abolitionist, convinced her husband John Parker to embark in the creation of an equal opportunity school.[3] They even sent their son James Parker to Forest College to obtain teaching credentials so he could become headmaster of the Clermont Academy.[4]

Built alongside the Ohio River, the Clermont Academy’s existence stirred controversy in local communities. Although Ohio was a free state, the bordering state of Kentucky was a slave state. Tension between the states and within the states themselves remained high as personal beliefs concerning slavery clashed. When, James G. Birney, the first black student enrolled, Priscilla and John Parker received threats against their family and school.[5] In addition to enrolling African American students, the Clermont Academy served as a “station” on the local Underground Railroad network, concealing fugitive slaves heading north. Despite the dangers, the Clermont Academy remained strong due to the Parker family’s conviction.

The physical buildings that comprised the Clermont Academy consisted of the school house and two dormitories: one male and one female. Built on two different elevations, the female dormitory was located on top of the hill by the Parker residence, while the male dormitory and the school house were located below. This meant that students were in constant motion between the buildings. Though only the women’s dormitory still exists today, evidence of the Clermont Academy’s long history remains captured within the site’s archaeological remains and the surviving archival records.

            Currently, Northern Kentucky University’s Public History Program holds the Clermont Academy’s archival records, loaned to the program by Parker family descendant Margaret McDiarmid. Titled the “Bertha Currier Hardman Clermont Academy Collection,” this collection contains letters, family histories, photographs, diaries, newspaper articles, newspaper clippings and ephemera, along with civil war military records relating to the Parker Family and/or the Clermont Academy. Spending time organizing and developing a finding aid for this collection helped me develop a sense of life at the Clermont Academy. To further my understanding of the Clermont Academy, I chose to participate in the excavation.

Through participation in the 2016 Clermont Academy excavation course, an opportunity to learn about the Clermont Academy through artifacts, ecofacts and features found at the site provides all excavation participants, including myself, with insight into the institutions unique past. As stated in the Science of Archaeology, “[a]rtifacts contain a wide range of information about a group, including human skill, knowledge, symbolism, and activities[,]” while ecofacts are used to understand the “environment of the time.”[6] Using our newly learned archaeological skills, excavation participants can help uncover artifacts and ecofacts which can be used to learn about the Clermont Academy as an institution and as a station on the Underground Railroad.

In the book, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad, author Cheryl LaRoche, stated that scholars can use geographical sites in addition to community histories to add depth to traditional Underground Railroad stories.[7] By bringing the stories of local people, especially African American abolitionists, to the forefront, misperceptions regarding the Underground Railroad can be corrected. As public historians, we aim to combine the knowledge gained from geography, archaeology and history to create relevant and compelling narratives with which to educate the public. Therefore, as we analyze excavated artifacts, we can determine whether the artifact supports archival evidence. Once they do, we are able to begin piecing together narratives within the context of local, state and national histories.

For example, we know the Clermont Academy operated as a private secondary school which prepared enrolled students to attend university. We also know that despite catering towards young-adults, children as young as age five to adults as old as thirty-five attended the academy.[8] During the 2015 Clermont Academy Excavation, several marbles were found on the premises. Combining our archival and archaeological knowledge, it can be determined that the younger students had some spare time in which they played simple games. Obviously, children play games, however, combining these tangible artifacts and written records we can create a narrative regarding the lives of the young children enrolled at the academy. If we can help the public to personally relate to students of the past, we allow these students’ history to become important to people outside the proefssional realms of history and archaeology. As we continue to excavate, I hope to find more connections between the uncovered artifacts and the archival records, in order to begin development of the Clermont Academy’s narrative.

[1] Clermont County Conventions and Visitors Bureau, “The Freedom Trail Brochure,” http://www.visit clermontohio.comwp-content/uploads/FreedomTrail.pdf (accessed May 15, 2016) 3.

[2] Clermont County Conventions and Visitors Bureau, “The Freedom Trail Brochure,”3.

[3] Brian Hackket, “The Clermont and the Parker Academy Archive,” (accessed February 16, 2016).

[4] Brian Hackket, “The Clermont and the Parker Academy Archive.”

[5] Brian Hackket, “The Clermont and the Parker Academy Archive.”

[6] M.Q. Sutton, The Science of Archaeology, 15.

[7] Cheryl LaRoche, Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad, ix.

[8] Brian Hackket, “The Clermont and the Parker Academy Archive.”