Recognizing the history of enslaved people at Mecklenburg County historic properties
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As school systems, universities and museums throughout the United States reckon with ways to present the history of slavery, three of the oldest, most historic properties in Mecklenburg County are no exception.
The challenges for three former plantations in the Charlotte area — Historic Rosedale, Latta Place and the 1774 Alexander Homesite — are substantial. They include identifying, engaging and collaborating with descendants of the people enslaved on these sites, preparing for visitors’ reactions, and increasing research into — and programming about — the history of those people who were enslaved.
While the challenges are similar, the institutions are addressing the issues from different perspectives and stages.
About three years ago, Kyle Smith, an amateur genealogist and legal training consultant in New York City, took a trip to Charlotte to learn more about his ancestors at Rosedale. He had researched his family genealogy for 20 years and believed he was descended from the Caldwell family. The interconnected Frew, Caldwell and Davidson families owned plantations in Mecklenburg County throughout the 1800s. Formerly enslaved people often took the surname of the family that had owned them.
Smith visited Rosedale in 2021, a few months before the estate’s African American Legacy at Historic Rosedale Project was getting started. Smith, who is Black, said it was as though “the bell started ringing and everyone is coming outside and saying ‘we need to meet you and let’s talk.’” Rosedale leaders invited Smith to become a member of the legacy project. He said he has since become engaged in events, exhibits, programs, new memorial structures, and genealogical research, and helped with an August 2022 reunion for descendants of Rosedale. Forty-five people attended.
Names are critical in genealogical research. Some of the names of people enslaved at Rosedale include Milly, Matilda, Abram, Sylvia, George, Narcissa, Nat and Little Nat. Considered property, they did not have recorded surnames. Enslaved people weren’t named in censuses, often didn’t have birth or burial records and might show up only in wills.
The August 2022 reunion included a genealogy workshop and public history specialists from UNC Charlotte’s J. Murrey Atkins Library, who had researched genealogies of Rosedale descendants. Elizabeth Myers, board vice president at Rosedale, said they often rely on historical resources and archives at UNC Charlotte.
Beyond Frew, Caldwell and Davidson, names that emerged on the workshop’s genealogical charts include Klutz, Johnston, Brown, Gray, Billups, Foreman and Bryers.
A memorial garden being planned for Rosedale celebrates the names of ancestors. Smith described a Congolese tradition in which, when an individual of good character dies, they become a star in the universe who watches over the family and serves as a counselor. In the tradition, Smith said, people call the names of their ancestors to join them, “to be next to us, to continue to walk with us in this world and to assist us, to teach us the things that they learned, or maybe have not learned, or that we are too ignorant to pay attention to.”
The Rosedale board president, Janet Levy, is a retired professor of anthropology at UNC Charlotte.
Rosedale can now contribute to the quality of life in Charlotte, Levy said, “simply by providing an opportunity for people to learn about things that are hard to talk about, but impacted all of us who live here in North Carolina, live in a world that is experiencing impacts from the history of slavery. And we’re the ones who have to figure it out and figure out how we want to go forward as a society.”
The Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department convened a new community advisory group after missteps in 2021 with a planned Juneteenth event at Latta Place led to the site’s closure. Since then, Lee Jones, director of the department, and Liz Morrell, strategic planning and resources manager, have engaged the community in a new vision for county historic properties. The group includes Charlotte museum professionals; representatives from UNC Charlotte, Johnson C. Smith University, and the county Historic Landmarks Commission; citizens from the county’s seven municipalities; and the president of the NAACP’s Charlotte chapter.
Among other work, the group visited 15 former plantation sites in five states. Morrell said the programs of McCleod Plantation, run by the Charleston County Parks department, provide a good example for Charlotte.
Jones described a range of deep emotions evoked in visitors to the sites. At one location, he said, he saw a white man shaking with what appeared to be guilt. At former burial grounds, he said, people of color broke down and cried.
“So one thing I learned is that we need a place at each of these sites for people to be able to pace themselves as they go through. ... We need to offer docents or interpreters that are very knowledgeable not just of the site, but of these emotional reactions.” Reflection spaces and self-guided tours that meet a visitor’s emotional level of tolerance are in the works, Jones said.
The advisory group is now preparing the final draft of an interpretive plan that will inform future strategy. Their work with descendants, they said, is to direct the public to reliable resources, such as the Charlotte chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and to ask them to come forward. A new program, MeckRoots, is designed to gather stories in advance of the 250th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 2026.
Latta is not the only former plantation on the county inventory of 50 historic sites. On a hot Saturday in the middle of July, when the Holly Bend location near Huntersville was opened to visitors for the first time in years, all 40 tour slots were filled.
Listening to history is important, Jones said.
“Even though some of it may be pleasant and some unpleasant,” he said, “because that’s the only way we’re going to move forward as a society and not repeat the horrible steps that we don’t want to talk about today.”
Hezekiah Alexander built the oldest surviving homesite in Mecklenburg County in 1774. An impressive stone building even by today’s standards, it was mocked by neighbors and newspapers in the 1770s, said historian Nolan Dahm. The site now includes seven acres. It was originally 600, and the remainder is now covered by residential, retail and commercial development.
Terri White, the president and chief executive officer of the Charlotte Museum of History, where the homesite is located, has spoken of the need for a diversity of perspectives and inclusive storytelling.
Dahm is programs and exhibitions manager for the museum, and he summarized the challenge of genealogical and historical research: it takes time.
“We’re a staff of eight people,” Dahm said. “There’s a lot of stuff that I want to know, that I probably will just never get to find out.”
But “for us, I think it’s about publicizing it,” Dahm said. “There’s a lot of folks … who maybe have family stories that they might have been descended from enslaved folks in this area, but they never really knew what to do with that information … Genealogical organizations recognize that helping descendants of enslaved people find their ancestry is sort of at the cutting edge of what genealogists are doing.”
Responding to anxiety about history
Barbara Jackson, the leader of the legacy project and a board member at Rosedale, told a story that echoed Lee Jones’ experience with visitor emotions.
A mom brought her teenage daughter to Rosedale for a tour. The girl’s anxiety about the history of the house, which was built by enslaved people in 1815, prevented her from going inside.
“One of the fine young men we have who work on Saturdays was the tour guide that day, and he was able to talk with her and to encourage her first step inside the door,” said Jackson.
“And they went throughout the house and she heard the story of the families who have lived in the house and their interaction with the enslaved people, and she left with a better feeling about having come here.”
“Everybody has skills and talents,” Jackson said. “And you don’t need to be weighed down by negative things that were said about enslaved people … things that were said to brainwash people. And so we have to move beyond that, and that’s one of the goals of the committee — to help establish pride.”
Simone Feast is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of community news. Bob Page is director of student media at Queens. This work was supported by the James E. Rogers Research Program.