- Associated Press - Saturday, July 18, 2015

VARINA, Va. (AP) - Some Richmond high school students are among the first to discover the artifacts on a historic property in eastern Henrico County owned by a group of African-Americans freed in the 1700s.

Members of Urban Archaeology Corps, Groundwork RVA, and local and Massachusetts-based National Park Service archaeologists are leading the excavation at Gravel Hill off Longbridge Road near Darbytown Road in Varina.

A community day to exhibit the findings will be set for later this summer.

Gravel Hill was one of the first communities of freed African-Americans after a Quaker named John Pleasants declared their freedom in his will in 1771. His son, aided by lawyer John Marshall, who later became the fourth U.S. chief justice, argued that his father’s wishes be carried out despite opposition. A few years later, the 78 slaves were legally free and became owners of about 350 acres.

The excavation site is believed to be the home of Richard Sykes, a descendant of those freed and a deacon of Gravel Hill Baptist Church. Students in the eight-week summer program expressed surprise that freed African-Americans lived so close to Richmond during the Revolutionary War.

Some descendents of the Adkins, Sykes, Pleasants and Bagby families and others still live in the area and have passed down family stories. The stories have not gained the fame they deserve, students said.

“Because it’s an untold story, you would never know what happened here,” said Jocelyn Lee, a rising senior at Franklin Military Academy.

The students researched maps and written accounts about the site for two weeks before starting to dig. They also interviewed a descendant of Gravel Hill.

“We’re helping the community of Gravel Hill” learn more about its history, said Shannon Shelton, a rising senior at Richmond Community High School. “We don’t just dig wherever. It’s a very careful process.”

The group has already found bullets, glass, tile and pig bones in a 30-foot square set-aside for the students to excavate.

“I think big things are ahead in telling these stories,” said Kristen Allen, the chief of natural and cultural resources at the Richmond National Battlefield Park. The partnership with Groundwork RVA especially gets students involved. “In the age of video games, it’s nice to get kids in parks.”

The Battle of Glendale in the summer of 1862 was partially fought on Sykes’ 50-acre property as he and his family fled. When he and others in the community returned, some homes had been converted into hospitals, livestock and materials were stolen, and crops were trampled.

Sykes’ brother Isaac owned an adjacent 35-acre farm and claimed the loss of a horse, cow, four acres of oats, five acres of corn and 11,000 fence rails, according to the Civil War Trust, which bought the land for the National Park Service to preserve. He claimed more than $2,000 in damages after the war, but was awarded only $303 from the government.

Justis Thomas-Jackson, a rising senior at Richmond Community, said the experience has opened his mind to different fields of science and history.

“The ground holds a lot of secrets,” he said.

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.timesdispatch.com

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