Editor's NotesNews & Opinion

Editor’s Note: Meck Dec Day and Charlotte’s Racist History

An uncomfortable conversation

meck dec day
A white supremacist campaign cartoon published in the Raleigh News and Observer, September 27, 1898. (Courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

In our latest News feature, Ryan Pitkin talks to local author and social entrepreneur Justin Jones-Fosu about diversity and inclusion, topics on which he sometimes leads workshops and are the focal points of his new book, The Inclusive Mindset.

In the chat, Ryan brings up a recent movement, made up mostly of right-wing pundits and politicians, that looks to vilify such workshops and ban any training that could be described as “critical race theory.”

“For those politicians who choose to have true, genuine dialogue, when you have genuine dialogue, it allows you to better understand what do you mean by this when you talk about diversity and inclusion,” Jones-Fosu responds. “Unfortunately, with most politicians, they’re not trying to have dialogue. They’re interested in speaking to their base, because at the end of the day their base is what’s happening for them.”

That’s exactly what’s going on in the latest right-wing attack on U.S. history. On Friday, April 30, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell wrote U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to express “grave concern” about the department’s approach to U.S. History, which he claimed was promoting “activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps.”

He singled out the 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times, which emphasizes the significance of racial slavery in shaping the American economy, society, and culture.

Such efforts, McConnell lamented, “increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity.” As a result, he warned, “American pride has plummeted to its lowest level in 20 years.” Poppycock.

It is far past time for our nation to genuinely reckon with our deeply flawed racial history. Efforts to hide historic realities beneath “patriotic” platitudes obscure hard truths about both past and present and keep us from shaping a truer, more grounded national sense of pride and struggle.

Last summer, as Black activists across the country rallied against the systemic racism that plagues our nation, Queen City Nerve sought to bolster local efforts by publishing “Black History of Charlotte,” a five-part series detailing some of the challenges and accomplishments of Charlotte’s African-American residents from the close of the Civil War into the present. 

Starting on May 19, we will extend the series with a two-part “prequel” that examines Black Charlotte history from the 1740s through the Civil War.

The timing matters. The next day, May 20, is “Meck Dec Day,” which commemorates the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. Sparse historical records have prompted fierce debates over whether the Declaration, said to have been signed in 1775, is reality or myth. But despite this controversy, the Meck Dec has formed a prominent component of Charlotte’s identity for more than 150 years. It thus offers an ideal focus for historical reassessment.

Promoters of the Meck Dec generally focus on the signers’ independent spirit, distrust of authority and “firm belief that all men were equal.” Chronicler J.B. Alexander set this tone in 1902, writing that Mecklenburg County “was populated with a race of people” who “had been taught that liberty and independence were necessary to achieve the highest aims in life.”

What Alexander failed to mention, and what most accounts of the Meck Dec either leave out or gloss over, is that many of the signers were actively engaged in denying liberty and independence to other human beings — the men and women of African descent whom they had enslaved. Men such as John Davidson, Thomas Polk and Hezekiah Alexander built fortunes by exploiting enslaved labor. They justified this practice with the claim that Africans and their descendants were a “lesser” race of people than the white Europeans who enslaved them. The legacy of those actions and ideas remains with us today.

The irony of claiming liberty for oneself while denying it to others has not been lost on Charlotte’s Black activists. Starting right after the Civil War, and continuing into the civil rights era, African Americans working for freedom, justice and equality have periodically chosen Meck Dec Day as a forum for their own claims to equal rights of citizenship. “There is no freedom unless all of us are free,” longtime activist Reginald Hawkins proclaimed at one such event in 1963.

We hope the upcoming installments of Black History of Charlotte, along with related programming, will help continue that tradition here in 2021. Stay tuned.

Become part of the Nerve: Get better connected and become a monthly donor to support our mission and join thousands of Charlotteans by subscribing to our email newsletter. If you’re looking for the arts in Charlotte, subscribe to the paper for the most in-depth coverage of our local scene.

Pamela Grundy

Pamela Grundy is a writer, historian, exhibit curator, butterfly gardener and educational activist who has lived in Charlotte since 1994. You can learn more about her work at colorandcharacter.org and at shamrockgardens.org.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *