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Editor’s Note: Telling Both Sides of Charlotte History

This week’s issue marks the return of local historian Pamela Grundy’s Black History of Charlotte series, which we began publishing as a five-part series last summer, and which we’re picking back up with a prequel of sorts this week.

Since the original series began at the end of the Civil War, the new two-part series will cover the era of slavery, the Revolutionary War and, of course, the mythical Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, aka the Meck Dec, Pamela will get you all caught up with the controversial history of the document in her upcoming op-ed, Rethinking the Meck Dec, which run online on Thursday.

That being said, I couldn’t be more excited for the return of Black History of Charlotte. Since running the original series last year, we’ve heard from area educators ranging from middle school to college who have used it as a teaching tool in their classes. Our goal in the coming year is to push for more adoption of the series in local schools.

Having come up as a student in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and one who paid attention in history class if nowhere else, I know I never learned 90% of the things Pamela’s taught me in this process (and that’s being generous).

It also comes at such a critical time for history education, as conservative lawmakers in North Carolina and around the country are pushing back against any teachings that might make them uncomfortable and/or challenge their insistence that America’s forefathers were moralists who believed in freedom and liberty for all.

A statue of Capt. Jack James stands at the corner of N. Kings Dr. and E. 4th St. on the Little Sugar Creek Greenway. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

On May 12, Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 324, a bill that would ban teachers from teaching lessons that acknowledge America’s history and legacies related to racism and sexism.

With this in mind, I reached out to some other local folks whose work involves spreading the word about the Meck Dec to get their thoughts on why folks are so ready to celebrate this document (that may or may not exist) as a symbol of liberty while turning their cheek to the fact that its authors and signers were slaveholders.

To be clear, I’m not anti-Meck Dec by any means. I’m a big supporter of teaching history just the way it happened — though the fact that we’re unsure of what exactly did happen is what makes this story all the more fun and popular, I suspect. I’m not here to cancel any celebrations. What I’m bothered by is the cognitive dissonance that surrounds this time in Charlotte’s history, as it does

And so I began with Scott Syfert, cofounder of the May 20th Society, which has worked to bring the Meck Dec back into the city’s public consciousness after interest all but ceased completely at the end of the 20th century.
Syfert pointed me to some passages from his books.

The eighth chapter of Syfert’s book Eminent Charlotteans is dedicated fully to Charlotte’s formerly enslaved population, with an introduction that reads, “For every Jack [James] or [Joseph] Graham, there are hundreds, even thousands, whose names we do not know and whose life stories are entirely lost. These are the enslaved African Americans who labored, built and shaped the economy and culture of Mecklenburg County, as surely as did the Scots-Irish.”

However, in passages from his other book, The First American Declaration of Independence? The Disputed History of the Mecklenburg Declaration of May 20, 1775, Syfert references the dip in Meck Dec interest as “political correctness but with some justification,” and goes on to say that the 1982 decision by the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners to drop Meck Dec Day as a recognized holiday was spurred by a desire to add a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a telling scapegoat if nothing else.

I also reached out to Adria Focht, president and CEO of the Charlotte Museum of History, located on the homesite of Hezekiah Alexander, alleged signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration.

Before Focht’s time at CMoH, I had been turned off from the museum due to an experience I had while touring the Alexander homesite with a young Black boy that I mentor. During the tour, I was dismayed to realize the guide meant to completely ignore the role slavery played in keeping the homestead operable and the Alexander family profitable.

Only once I brought it up near the end of the tour — in response to a fellow patron’s question whether it was someone’s “job” to man the kitchen from dawn to dusk — did the guide reluctantly admit that, yes, there were an unknown amount of enslaved people living on the property at the time, including those forced to man the kitchen all day.

Focht came on with the museum in 2017 and has since made remarkable strides in highlighting the histories of not only enslaved people and other Black Charlotteans, but local indigenous folks as well. Focht says homesite tours currently begin at the museum’s American Freedom Bell, a monument cast with a hornet and the words “NEVER FORGET THAT YOU ARE FREE.”

Ian Pasquini, Education Associate at Charlotte Mueum Of History, rings the American Freedom Liberty Bell for patrons to begin a recent tour of the Hezekiah Alexander homesite. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“We take this opportunity to challenge visitors to consider the context of the American Revolution, and to think about the evolution of the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ since 1775,” Focht wrote in an email, stating that at least 17 enslaved people were known to have lived and worked at the Alexander homesite.

“We want Charlotteans to continue to identify as the ‘hornets’ nest of rebellion’ as it was purported to be called by the British during the American Revolution — to uphold a position of resistance and persistence that fostered movements like the Abolitionist Movement, Civil Rights Movement, and Black Lives Matter,” she continued.

“We hope that by celebrating the ideals of liberty, justice, equality, and freedom, while encouraging an honest evaluation of our nation’s ongoing struggle in achieving those ideals, we will inspire Charlotteans to be an active part of the continuum of local people who have fought for generations to expand the definitions of our founding principles to truly be inclusive of all people.”

And that’s the difference between providing context to your historical teachings and turning the other cheek to the uncomfortable parts. Now is not a time to ignore the history of oppression that got us to where we are.

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