Roanoke professor, students uncover College's black history

Dr. Kelley Deetz and Roanoke students examine artifacts found while digging underground behind the Monterey House kitchen on Roanoke's campus.

Dr. Kelley Deetz and Roanoke students examine artifacts found while digging underground behind the Monterey House kitchen on Roanoke's campus.

Some chilly Friday mornings this past spring, groups of Roanoke students arrived early to dig in the earth, even when the ground was drenched in dew.

A Roanoke College professor and about 50 students spent the past semester unearthing remnants of history in the dirt on Roanoke's campus and with each find, uncovering a historical narrative of slavery in Southwest Virginia.

Since March, Dr. Kelley Deetz and these students found broken and whole pieces of china, silverware, animal bones and more underground, just outside the kitchen of the College's circa 1853 Monterey House.

Deetz, an assistant professor in the College's History department and director of the public history program, is using these materials to connect details about the region's African American history, one of her main research subjects. She is spending much of this summer writing a book about slavery in the Tidewater region of Virginia.

It's not unusual for Southern college campus history to include slavery. At one time, there were at least 20 enslaved African Americans who lived at Monterey House, according to research by Dr. Mark Miller, a history professor at Roanoke. Monterey previously served as a hotel, fraternity house and private residence, before the College bought it in 2002 and now uses it as a meeting space and a housing location for guests.

Also, enslaved helped to build the College's Administration Building, according to Miller.

Deetz's digging project was part of an archeology of slavery class that she taught in the spring. Students were required to spend at least five hours digging, though most of them devoted many more hours.

This fall, Deetz and her students plan to continue the project by cleaning up the artifacts, labeling them and displaying them as an exhibit in Monterey's kitchen. Deetz also plans to use the excavation site, which she described as "incredibly rich," for future classes.

When Deetz, who has taught at Roanoke for two years, first started digging, she wasn't sure what she would discover. But she knew that the Monterey House site was historic.

She figured that garbage would hold the key to important artifacts. Embedded in the earth, Deetz and her students discovered 19th century ceramics, such as plates in the Blue Willow pattern, and imported porcelains, including tea cups and platters. They found garbage stashed in various holes in the ground.

"The way you dispose of garbage teaches you a lot about that person," Deetz said, explaining that people may toss out trash haphazardly or neatly fill holes.

And because many African Americans could not read or write at the time, details about their lives are not recorded, she said. This makes gathering historical information a challenge.

That's why Deetz finds this kind of work fascinating.

"I don't like easy jobs," said Deetz, a California native who developed a passion for African American history in high school and went on to William & Mary, where she earned a bachelor's degree in black studies and history. "This is as tough as it gets."

Deetz has a master's degree in African American Studies and a doctorate in African Diaspora Studies, both from the University of California at Berkley. For much of her personal study, including her doctoral dissertation, she has researched the work of enslaved plantation cooks, whose recipes she believes have shaped Southern cuisine.

M'Elise Salomon, a history major at Roanoke and a student in Deetz's archeology of slavery class, found animal bones and old nails during last semester's dig.

"I just love learning about the history of West African traditions," said Salomon '17, who is from Baton Rouge, La.  

Salomon actually learned about plans for the Monterey House dig and slave history project from Deetz before she decided to come to Roanoke. She said the project was one of the reasons that she enrolled at the College.

"You can't turn that down," Salomon said, who plans to earn a concentration in public history.

Deetz said she's delighted that many of her students have caught "the archeology bug" as a result of their work in her classes.

"It infects you," she said.                                    

This fall, Deetz is planning a series of campus events to highlight African American history at Roanoke. Stay tuned for more details about these events.

-Published June 6, 2014