Getting kids to dig into their culture

Education: An archaeology program in Annapolis offers underprivileged young people a chance to unearth the past.

August 13, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

All summer under the Annapolis sun, Maisha Washington taught archaeology and history techniques to two dozen African-American children - secretly hoping that digging into the past will inspire a few of them to choose a future in one of those fields.

"We need to broaden the career options we give our children," said Washington, the education administrator at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, which sponsored the program for low-income youths with the University of Maryland.

Yesterday, in a carriage house overlooking the historic Paca House garden on the last class day, Washington said the program had produced results. The children know how to dig artifacts from a site, and how to measure, record and interpret objects such as buttons, coins and fish bones.

Her collaborator in the summer program, University of Maryland Professor Mark P. Leone, said, "It's in no way an academic exercise. It's an exercise in life and translating African-American culture. They are the next generation who will replace me."

This is the fourth year for the program, which Washington designed to combine science, history and archaeology. The Banneker-Douglass Museum focuses on African-American history, including the Underground Railroad, and the university has conducted archaeological digs in the city.

The main idea was to teach children how to "put together the picture of what life was like in historical context," Washington said.

A lace tablecloth, for example, might be a valuable find recovered from a dig, she told the class yesterday.

She also reminded the youngsters that slave quarters were likely to have a small religious symbol used for "warding off evil" tucked in a corner.

To get their attention the first day, Washington told the group that archaeology was invented to investigate ancient Egypt. And, in an appeal to cultural pride, she added it was a shame there are few African-Americans in the field that started in Africa.

The children, ages 7 through 12, started listening then, she said. As the summer progressed, the group learned about slavery in the capital city since the days when the grounds of Paca House were the site of the city house of a plantation owner with slaves.

Some of the older children conducted oral history interviews with lifelong residents of historically black communities in Annapolis: Clay Street, Eastport, Highland Beach and the section known as Downtown.

"It improves the way they look at themselves," Washington said. "They very seldom have access to professional adults, and documenting history is something they don't normally do. They should think of this as a career."

T'keyah Pulley, 12, and Rickia Coates, 10, learned such skills as reassembling plates, cups, vases, statues and other artifacts.

"They tell a story if you imagine how they were used," T'keyah said.

She also took part in the oral history portion of the program, interviewing Kirby J. McKinney, 56, director of the Stanton Recreation Center.

He told T'keyah about the vibrant Clay Street neighborhood he knew as a youth - with a YMCA, shops and movie theaters - and cried while talking to her.

"He cried because his history is gone, and his neighborhood is changed," T'keyah said. "I think he cried because he misses our past."

In the oral history interviews, others talked about community losses, such as the closure of a black barbershop and the demolition of a house to make room for a parking lot.

Washington, a historian and educator, says she intends to make the curriculum available nationally on the Internet, to inspire other archaeology teachers and pupils.

She is also encouraging the older children to write a storybook with themselves as the main characters, to be drawn by Amber Clark, 16, a South River High School student.

In general, the 7- and 8-year-olds saw digging into the past as a treasure hunt, while the 9- and 10-year-olds liked the story aspect. The oldest children were best at reassembling a certain image of the past, Washington said.

Even the program's home base - the Paca House grounds - revealed an important piece of pre-Civil War Annapolis to the participants. "A lot of African-American children have never been to the Paca gardens," Washington said.

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