By Anna Phillips | June 19, 2020 at 5:18 PM EDT – Updated June 19 at 7:44 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – On the celebration of Juneteenth, those who run the Latimer House in downtown Wilmington are committing to developing and sharing more thorough representations of what life was like for both the Latimer family and the enslaved people—and later, servants who lived there.
The house was built in 1852 for Wilmington merchant Zebulon Latimer and his wife, Elizabeth.
By 1860, 11 slaves were working on the property.
After Emancipation, most left to seek freedom and new lives but the family maintained some paid servants.
For the last 18 years, what was once slave quarters, was rented to an individual tenant who lived there.
In April, they moved out.
The board has decided it’s time to re-dedicate that space to the slaves who had no choice but to live there.
“The board recognized that this was a good moment to change what we’ve been doing. We’re not changing because of what’s been happening—this has been a conversation we’ve been having way before anything, way before George Floyd died, way before the protests downtown and in Atlanta. But because of what’s been going on, we’ve recognized the urgency of really following through and committing to being more open to the histories that are around us,” said Latimer House operations manager Jessie Labell.
The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society is in the early stages of re-writing the narrative to more accurately and thoroughly depict the lives of all those who lived here, and they’re hoping to get input and guidance from the community as they move forward.
“We have a staff and a board that is predominantly white,” Labell said. “We don’t feel that we have the authority to take this whole project as our own. It’s not our story that we’re telling; it’s part of our story, but it’s not our collective memory that we understand. We can’t put that aspect into our tour because we haven’t lived it. So, what we want to do is reach out to the universities, to the local communities, people who…the folks who are going to come here and want to hear this history. We want to know first of all, what do they want to learn? How do they feel about this history? Why it’s important to them and we want to create a space that they feel their voices can be heard.”
Labell says the decision to move forward with new intention was made last week, but she already has ideas for changes she’d like to implement.
“We used to start the tour at the very front, so you’d get the grand entrance as if you were a guest of the Latimers, but in fact we’re now going to start here at the slave quarters and explain that the house, the big house, was built on a foundation of enslaved labor and is built on a foundation of community, of African-Americans who made this house run and were really the ones who did everything for this house,” she said.
At this point, she says they’ll likely maintain the top half of the building as event space to be rented, and the lower half will be reverted to an interpretative space where future tours will go in-depth on what life was once like.
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