Another Historical Monument Sacrificed to the Forces of Unreason

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Never overestimate the ability of supposedly well-informed Americans to think rationally on the subject of race. That’s the unhappy lesson of Latta House and its closing earlier this year.

Latta House is a federal-style home, built around 1800, about 15 miles north of Charlotte, N.C. The house and its surroundings, generally known as Latta Plantation, have been on the National Register of Historic Places for nearly 50 years. The site hosts re-enactments and other living-history events for families and school groups learning about life in the antebellum South. Members of my own family have volunteered as docents and re-enactors for years.

The property is administered by Mecklenburg County and was, until recently, leased to a nonprofit called Historic Latta Place. In anticipation of President Biden’s declaration of Juneteenth—June 19, a day commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the U.S.—the property’s site manager, Ian Campbell, planned a living-history event based on the final dissolution of slavery in places like Latta.

One event was to portray the expulsion from the house of the slaveowner. An announcement, posted on Facebook, read: “Come out to Historic Latta Plantation for a one-night event, Saturday, June 19, 2021. You will hear stories from the massa himself who is now living in the woods . . . his former bondsmen have occupied his home and are now living high on the hog; hear how they feel about being freedmen.” Other events would portray the overseer, confederate soldiers, and white refugees.

The reaction was swift. Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte, N.C., branch of the NAACP, sent an angry email to Mr. Campbell: “Your insensitive, and frankly bigoted initial decision to reenact our ancestor’s pain and trauma from a white supremacy perspective will not be tolerated. Yes . . . your decision was rooted in anti-Blackness and white supremacy.”

Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles suggested that action be taken against Latta. “We should not support any business or organization that doesn’t respect equality, history, and the truth of the African American people’s journey to freedom,” she tweeted on June 17.

The condemnations spread on social media. Coverage in the Charlotte Observer was similarly unfriendly.

Latta Plantation’s critics might have considered one relevant point: Ian Campbell, the man responsible for planning the living-history events, is black. He was, in fact, the first black man to run the place in its 221-year history. Not that today’s arbiters of racial justice have trouble with attributing white supremacy to black people whose opinions they dislike (just ask California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder ), but Mr. Cambell’s racial identity might have given them pause.

The language from the announcement people found offensive was based on a pro-Unionist song written in 1862 by abolitionist Henry C. Work, “Kingdom Coming.” The song is sung from the viewpoint of newly freed slaves who delight in the fact that the slaveowner has absconded, leaving them to live in the house. “They now control their own destiny,” Mr. Campbell wrote in a five-page explanation, “they have the right to decide on what they want to do with their lives, not the plantation owner. This is what made the white supremacists of the period mad, a former slave on equal footing with whites. The right to get legally married, the right to sign a labor contract on their terms and conditions, the right to an education, also having children without fear of them being sold down the river.”

His critics demanded an apology, but Mr. Campbell was defiant. “To the masses on social media and politicians,” he wrote, “no apology will be given for bringing a unique program to educate the public about former slaves becoming FREE!”

None of it mattered. Within a few days the Mecklenberg County Board of Commissioners voted to close the Latta site “until further notice,” and the county’s park service chose not to renew its contract with Historic Latta Place. The nonprofit’s board members say no one from these government bodies would take their calls, and that their decisions were based entirely on hostile news coverage and social media commentary.

Latta House and surrounding grounds are usually bustling this time of year with re-enactments and historical tours. Now it sits vacant—a silent testament to our inability to take the past on its own terms.

Mrs. Lawing lives in Maiden, N.C.

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