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Plantation planned Juneteenth event that would tell the stories of displaced ‘White refugees’

The Latta Plantation in Huntersville, N.C. (Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The North Carolina plantation’s Saturday evening event promised to share stories of its “former bondsmen” on June 19 — a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. “Hear how they feel about being freedmen,” a now-deleted online blurb said.

But most of the event description for a Juneteenth activity at Historic Latta Plantation dealt with White people, seemingly fallen on hard times. “White refugees have been displaced and have a story to tell as well,” it declared.

Visitors to the site just north of Charlotte would hear from defeated Confederate soldiers, the description said. Also from “the massa himself who is now living in the woods” and on the run from the Yankees, his home taken over by the people he used to own. Then there was the overseer, “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 event description asked, using an idiom to reference the punishing hours that Black enslaved people were made to work — from first light to dark.

A backlash built. The event was canceled. And the plantation’s Facebook page filled with scathing reviews and dismay that a historic site would so whitewash a cruel and racist past.

“This should not even need to be said, but the idea of ‘hearing from massa himself,’ and sympathizing with an overseer who is no longer allowed to enslave people is disgusting,” one online reviewer wrote.

But Ian Campbell, the plantation’s site manager, staunchly defended the program in a statement posted online while saying that he took “full responsibility for its content.” Identifying himself as an “American man of African descent,” Campbell said his event was badly misconstrued.

“To tell the story of these freedmen would be pointless if the stories of others were not included. Many of you may not like this but, their lives were intertwined, the stories of massa, the Confederate soldiers, the overseer, the displaced white families,” Campbell said.

“History is not just about one-time period or one group of people. … To the masses on social media and politicians, no apology will be given for bringing a unique program to educate the public about former slaves becoming FREE!”

Plantations-turned-tourist attractions have long been criticized for presenting a rosy picture of the South, despite increasing efforts at some sites to portray the ugly truths. But last year’s nationwide soul-searching about racism has brought new pressure to recognize and teach about the horrors and legacy of slavery.

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Mecklenburg County — which oversees the nature preserve on which the plantation sits — said in a statement Friday that it “has zero tolerance for programs that do not embrace equity and diversity.” Referring only to a “planned event at Latta Nature Preserve,” the county said it learned of the program on social media and immediately contacted the organizers.

“As a result of this incident, Mecklenburg County is looking at its contract with the facility vendor regarding future programming,” the county added.

Campbell confirmed that the event was canceled but said it was scrapped over “security concerns for volunteers and staff.” The plantation had recommended the $25-per-person event for “mature audiences only,” offering reservations every half-hour.

Accusing the media of stirring up a public “frenzy,” he noted that the title of the event, “Kingdom Coming,” was a reference to a Civil War-era song in which slaves celebrate their coming freedom and lock up their master.

Campbell also spoke of a broader shift in the site’s programming to focus on not only the American Revolution and the Civil War, but also the Reconstruction period that followed.

“The Confederacy will never be glorified, white supremacy will never be glorified, plantation owners, white refugees or overseers will never be glorified,” he said in his statement. “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.”

Historic Latta Plantation describes itself as a “circa 1800 living history museum and farm” that offers camps, reenactments, programs for students and more. Its website mentions but does not foreground slavery.

“The plantation house along with a carriage barn, cabins, and outbuildings, give visitors a glimpse into 19th century life in the Carolina backcountry,” the site’s homepage says.

Its educational programming includes a “plantation life” tour that discusses “the planter family” as well as enslaved African Americans and stops at a cabin for them. Another program focuses on the Underground Railroad network that helped enslaved people escape to the North.

As some furious reviewers noted, the scrapped event plans sowed offense not only because of the concept and language but because of the date: The anniversary of June 19, 1865, when enslaved Black people in Texas learned more than two years late that they were free.

Juneteenth celebrates ‘a moment of indescribable joy’: Slavery’s end in Texas

It took about half a year more to officially abolish slavery across the country, when a sufficient number of states ratified the 13th Amendment, which said: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.”

Yet Juneteenth is a powerful symbol of the joy of freedom, delayed after Texas enslavers ignored Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. When a general arrived on Galveston Island with Union troops to deliver the good news, Black residents erupted in “a moment of indescribable joy,” historian C.R. Gibbs previously told The Washington Post.

In 2020, The Post’s Nicole Ellis visited Galveston, Tex., where Gen. Gordon Granger gave an order that emancipated 250,000 enslaved people on June 19, 1865. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more Retropolis:

As plantations talk more honestly about slavery, some visitors are pushing back

She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew.

He became the nation’s ninth vice president. She was his enslaved wife.

In Texas, a struggle to memorialize a brutal lynching as resistance grows to teaching historical racism