While crews from Frontier Sports readied a site behind the Upper Arlington Senior Center and Tremont Elementary School for the development of an athletics complex May 31, John Schweikart perspired nearby with a shovel, small orange flags, a tarp and several other digging and measuring tools.
The warming spring temperatures contributed to the sweat on the 54-year-old's brow. So, too, did a sense of urgency that if he were ever to find remains of a school for African American students rumored to have stood on site more than 140 years ago, it had to be now.
"I heard the (Upper Arlington) school board was working on a contract for all the athletic fields construction," Schweikart said. "Things started moving very fast. We realized if we're going to do something, we had to do it."
Schweikart is a 1982 graduate of Upper Arlington High School whose family lived on Berwyn Road. He attended Tremont Elementary.
He is now a biology lab instructor at OSU and still lives in UA. He also is a forensic archaeologist who formerly worked at Ohio Valley Archaeology Inc.
From May 27 to June 2, he performed a series of small archaeological digs and metal detection sweeps just east of the Upper Arlington Senior Center and Tremont Elementary School in hopes of finding something that might confirm that a school for black students operated on the site between 1870 and 1878.
He became aware of the possibility through a book called "Secrets Under the Parking Lot" by retired Grandview teacher Diane Kelly Runyon and Kim Shoemaker Starr.
Published in 2017, the book details "the hidden history of Perry Township," part of which is now Upper Arlington.
One of the people mentioned in the book is Pleasant Litchford, a freed slave and master blacksmith who came to Ohio, became a millionaire and, according to the book, maintained a cemetery for African Americans on the land where Upper Arlington High School now stands.
The authors' research found the district had relocated 27 graves from the site to nearby Union Cemetery after purchasing the land.
The book also highlighted an atlas map from 1872 that showed an African American school where Schweikart performed his recent dig.
So what did all that sweating and searching produce?
"We did find a glass trade bead that appears to be consistent with European-produced glass beads documented on 18th- and 19th-century African American archaeological sites, including slave plantations and African American burial grounds from the American South, New York City, the West Indies and from slave sites and burials from the same time period on the west coast of Africa," Schweikart said. "More analyses of this bead are forthcoming to make a final determination."
Schweikart said he's concluded his dig. He never intended to make an environmental or historical case for the site that would shut down the district's plans to build a $2.15 million athletics complex behind Tremont Elementary.
"I thought it was worthwhile to contact the school board and see if they would be amenable to me doing some work, and they've been great," he said. "I thought, especially in times when we're having discussions about racial discrimination in our nation and even UA, it was worthwhile."
Schweikart was unable to find any architectural remains or building foundations that might have been part of an old schoolhouse, but he hopes the glass bead might help establish links.
"Under Ohio law, from about 1848-78, black students had to go to different schools than white students," Schweikart said. "This land was sold (to Litchford) in 1869.
"In 1870, African American males were allowed to vote in Ohio, and by 1878, schools became integrated."
Depending on what further research turns up, Schweikart's project could lead to more classroom discussions in the district.
Upper Arlington Schools Chief Operating Officer Chris Potts said that was one reason the district allowed Schweikart to perform his research on the site.
"We're always interested in learning more about the history of our community, particularly when it relates to education," Potts said. "We're happy to work with John and his team to see if we can learn more about this important time in our community's history."
Schweikart said he's not yet sure if the project was an archaeological success.
Still, he's satisfied he was able to examine the grounds and bits of what lies beneath, and he's pleased the district and some in the community took notice.
"It's added to the conversation," he said. "It's gotten people talking. If it makes a difference in showing diversity that used to be there, as well as something we can look back upon to help us move forward today, it's been worthwhile."