In a dense, wooded lot, 17-year-old Justis Jackson lies on a mound of dirt. He doesn’t seem to mind the sticky heat or buzzing mosquitoes. Jackson’s attention is fixed on a buried object at the bottom of a neatly dug hole.
“Sounds like metal,” he says, knocking. “But what type of metal and how old it is, I don’t know. I hope it’s old.”
Jackson is an intern with the Urban Archeology Corps, a partnership between the National Park Service and the conservation group Groundwork RVA. The program puts teenagers to work on real projects, conducting research, excavating historic sites and cataloging artifacts.
The Corps is part of a park service effort, in advance of turning 100 next year, to increase diversity in staff, visitors and the stories it tells.
In Richmond, the teenagers are getting their hands dirty on Gravel Hill, exploring a little-known chapter of African-American history.
“The history of it goes back to the late 1700s, with a Quaker slave owner named John Pleasants,” says Kalen Gilliam, another teen in the program. “In his will, when he died, he said that any of his slaves age 30 and above, or when they turned 30, they would be granted their freedom and 350 acres of land.”
This was dozens of years before the Emancipation Proclamation. There were legal challenges to Pleasants’ will, but eventually almost 80 people were freed. They built a self-sufficient farming community 10 miles outside Richmond, where descendants still live today.
“It’s definitely made me see that not everything is as you see it,” high school senior Tyasha Casey says. “Everything has a deeper meaning, and it shows how we’re not just a minority, we can be something great.”
Click here to read more.