Former NC slave plantation may get money for transition. One group says it’s too early

Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation won’t renew its contract with a nonprofit that manages Historic Latta Plantation after a controversial Juneteenth event.

Mecklenburg County’s plan to fund the restoration of a former slave plantation as an educational site could be premature, the president of the county’s historical association says.

The 2023-2024 budget — which starts July 1 and is expected to be approved Tuesday — includes $128,000 for archaeological research and cultural analysis as well as a facility manager for a site now called Latta Place.

But Sarah Sue Hardinger, president of the Mecklenburg Historical Association, said county leaders may be making a move too soon. The budget vote is likely to happen before commissioners hear public feedback from meetings already held by the county’s parks and recreation department in February and March

“Local history cannot be painted with a broad brush,” Hardinger told The Charlotte Observer. “A senior recreation facility manager of a historic site needs to respect this perspective and proactively include local historians in most decisions, so hiring for this position without the report would be premature.”

Commissioner Elaine Powell, who represents north Mecklenburg and serves as the board’s vice chair, said it’s too early in the process to comment on the project, but pointed out the three public meetings and a survey the county has conducted.

“Community input is paramount and we have really done back handsprings to make sure that it’s included,” Powell said.

A parks department spokesperson told the Observer to check back in a month when they expect to receive a consultant’s report from those meetings and an online survey.

The site was renamed in 2022 to remove “plantation” from its name. It closed after organizers promoted a racist Juneteenth event the same year. County officials are working with Virginia-based Design Minds, Inc., to create a new blueprint that would include a more complete story of life on the plantation with exhibits showing the lasting impact of slavery in Mecklenburg County.

Local NAACP President Corine Mack has been involved with a group of community partners and county manager Dena Diorio. They’ve visited more than a dozen restored plantations around the country.

Mack’s main concern isn’t including public comment, but ensuring the county gets it right.

“The fact that Dena Diorio has put aside her time to be personally present has been so important because her presence told all the employees of Mecklenburg County that this is important,” Mack said. “We gotta get this right, especially in light of the fact that we’ve seen such racist sentiment across the country.”

Mack believes the county needs an exhibit showing the full experience of enslaved Africans on the plantation, something that shows the extent of the trauma for people to understand and learn from.

The Mecklenburg Historical Association is not involved with the project, Hardinger said, but she asked the county to consult local historians going forward.

“It is a good use of time to be reviewing existing information, but if the county starts to take action without taking the consultant’s report into consideration, then I would be concerned,” Hardinger said.

Hardinger, Mack and other community members support having interpreters at the site — in addition to signage and recorded tours — to ensure that complete, nuanced history is told.

Exploring options for Latta’s future

An initial master plan for Latta Place shows options that include living history exhibits, a research center and in-person interpretation.

One option presented in the design shows a new visitors center, new replica slave dwellings and a gazebo. Another design option shows a smaller visitors center, public art and expanded parking. The final design option shows no new visitors center with exhibits added in existing historical structures.

Based on community feedback Hardinger heard at the meeting she attended, “the report should contain expressions of a strong feelings about having the main house open often,” she said.

Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Director Lee Jones earlier this year said it is likely the result will be a blended fourth option from community feedback.

Historical site closed since 2021

The site’s history dates back 1800 when James Latta built a home on the 742-acre plantation. At one point, he owned 34 enslaved people who harvested cotton on the land, according to Sankofa’s Slavery Data Collection, a database created by a New York-based librarian.

In June 2021, the plantation — which is owned by the county but managed by a nonprofit offering history and education programs — promoted an event sympathetic to those who owned slaves in the wake of the Civil War, the Observer previously reported.

The event was timed to Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States. But it referred to freed slaves as “former bondsmen.” The event description promised to tell the story of “white refugees” and defeated Confederate soldiers while inaccurately minimizing an unnamed slaveowner to an “overseer” and referred to him as “massa.”

After the event, the county did not renew its contract with the nonprofit who hosted it, but the site has sat unused since then.

Mack said the county is trying and succeeding in going about things the right way

“I think it’s important that every resident in Mecklenburg and in North Carolina visits Latta Place and takes time to understand that these people — and they were people — experienced deep trauma,” Mack said.