News & Opinion

Juneteenth Protest Planned for Latta Plantation Following Event Debacle

Funding consequences still could come from county, town

Latta Plantation
Latta Plantation canceled its originally scheduled Juneteenth event due to the social media response. (PHoto by Carol

It’s the first two sentences of the event description for the since-canceled Kingdom Coming event, originally planned for the Juneteenth holiday at Latta Plantation in Huntersville, that grabs the reader’s attention — but in the worst way.

“Come out to Historic Latta Plantation for a one night event, Saturday, June 19, 2021,” the description read. “You will hear stories from the massa himself. Federal troops (Yankees) have him on the run and his former bondsmen have occupied his home and are living high on the hog. Hear how they feel about being freedmen.

“The overseer is now out of a job. What will he do now that he has no one to oversee from can see to can’t see?” the listing continued. “White refugees have been displaced and have a story to tell as well. Confederate soldiers who will be heading home express their feelings about the downfall of the Confederacy.”

Staff at Latta Plantation, a circa-1800 farm where enslaved people were once kept and forced into labor that currently serves as a “living history museum,” posted the event to Facebook on Thursday, June 10, and by Friday it was taken down.

By then the description had been shared in screenshots across social media, and the reaction was visceral. Countless folks took to Twitter and Facebook to point out their own issues with the event, namely the fact that it appeared to center white voices — the massa, the overseers, the Confederate troops — as victimized, sympathetic voices, all while the freedmen party it up in the big house.

Hundreds of people also voiced their discomfort with a plantation holding events in recognition of a holiday celebrating the emancipation of folks once forced to toil on its lands against their will.

“This has to be trolling. It has to be, [because] no one is this uninformed. This is willful ignorance,” tweeted James Ford, at-large member of the North Carolina State Board of Education, on June 12. “Also, ‘the overseer is out of a job’ is textbook post-Reconstruction white racial resentment politics. Explains a lot about today.”

As Abraham Lincoln historian Christian McWhirter pointed out, even the event title had dubious roots, referencing an 1862 song from white songwriter Henry Clay Work.

The song, which tells the tale of enslaved people who seize a plantation as Union soldiers approach, does not sympathize with the plantation owners, and is told from the point-of-view of the newly freed Black residents.

However, it’s a minstrel song, and the lyrics are written in the highly racist “minstrel dialect,” used to mock Black speech in the 19th century and well into the 20th. Despite the fact that Work was an avowed abolitionist, it was seen by some as satire and even embraced by Confederates in some instances.

“Confederates who enjoyed the song presumably missed the abolitionist subtext entirely,” McWhirter wrote. “I’ve always supposed they must have just viewed ‘Kingdom Coming’ as an absurdist minstrel joke … So, yes, ‘Kingdom Coming’ is a racially charged, highly complicated piece of music. It should be used only with extreme care by anyone doing public programming or really anywhere at any time.”

The backlash

The reaction from local elected officials was swift. Mecklenburg County, which owns the land where the Historic Latta Plantation and Nature Preserve operates through an independent nonprofit, issued a statement on June 11 emphasizing that it has “zero tolerance for programs that do not embrace equity and diversity,” and promising that, “As a result of this incident, Mecklenburg County is looking at its contract with the facility vendor regarding future programming.”

The county, which funnels its arts and culture spending through the Arts & Science Council, does not fund operations at the historic site, though they do own the lease on the land. The Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners plans to discuss the incident during its June 15 meeting

That same day, the Town of Huntersville issued a statement that read, in part, “The Huntersville Board of Commissioners has supported Latta Plantation in the past with an annual contribution. Funding for the new fiscal year will remain on hold pending further investigations into the facts surrounding this program.”

Management at Latta Plantation stayed mum until Saturday afternoon, when site manager Ian Campbell finally released a defensive statement blaming the “media corps of yellow journalists” for stirring the public into a frenzy.

Latta Plantation
Ian Campbell, site manager at Latta Plantation.

Campbell, a Black man himself, proudly offered no apologies, claiming the event was a “unique educational event” and promising that “the Confederacy will never be glorified, white supremacy will never be glorified, plantation owners, white refugees or overseers will never be glorified. What will be commemorated is the story of our people who overcame being snatched from their loved ones in Mother Africa and taken to a new and strange land. To work from can see to can’t see from birth to death. The fact that they survived and we are here and continue to thrive and prosper will be glorified.”

The statement went on to call out elected officials such as Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who had issued a statement on Friday expressing her disappointment with the program. Campbell said he had never seen Lyles at the plantation, implying that gave her no right to criticize it.

“Your opinions and concerns have been respectfully noted,” Campbell wrote. “However, after reading this, many of you will still be offended, some will be supportive, thank you.”

The unapologetic nature of the statement and failure to recognize how the event description was read as insensitive by so many people did not sit well with Huntersville Town Commissioner Stacy Phillips. She responded on Twitter, emphasizing that she was speaking for herself and not the town as a whole when she wrote, “if your attitude is ‘screw the concerned’ then you clearly don’t need $20,000 from the town,” referencing the allocation the plantation has requested from the town for the coming fiscal year.

Nor was local organizer Kass Ottley impressed by Campbell’s statement. Ottley plans to hold a protest outside of the plantation on Saturday, June 19, the day the event would have been held.

Kass Ottley of Seeking Justice CLT
Kass Ottley at a memorial gathering for George Floyd at Marshall Park in 2020. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

“We can no longer watch while the atrocities of chattel slavery are downplayed and pushed into the background for white comfort and white voices yet again to be heard,” Ottley told Queen City Nerve. “Once we begin to sympathize with the oppressor and the slave master, we victimize the slave all over again. We know that the slave owners have a story to tell but not at the expense of the Black men, women and children they owned, exploited, abused and sold.

“In the same way the Jewish community makes sure that we remember who the victims were during the Holocaust, we as Black people in America will not let you forget who the stolen Africans were and that they were the real victims of slavery,” she continued.

Ottley and others will gather outside of the plantation on Sample Road in Huntersville on June 19 at 3 p.m.

“The only way to healing and forgiveness is through acknowledgement, accountability, apology and atonement,” Ottley said.

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