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North Carolina plantation's Juneteenth event underscores South's historical whitewashing

The plan to center a Juneteenth event around so-called “displaced white refugees” is part of a larger effort to distort narratives about slavery.
Image: Latta Plantation civil war camp
Confederate soldiers charge across the lawn at Historic Latta Plantation, in Huntersville, NC, on July 13, 2006, as they battled the Union Soldiers. Over 200 youths are participating in the fourth, weeklong children's Civil War camps at the plantation. Patrick Schneider / AP file

Owners of the Latta Plantation in Huntersville, North Carolina faced a rude awakening this week when members of the public called out their planned Juneteenth event. Coinciding with the holiday that commemorates the end of legalized slavery in Texas on June 19, 1865, the Latta Plantation promised an event highlighting the experiences of white slaveholders and Confederate soldiers. “Come out to Historic Latta Plantation for a one-night event, Saturday, June 19, 2021,” they promised. “You will hear stories from the massa himself who is now living in the woods.” They went on to emphasize that the planned Juneteenth program would focus on “white refugees” who had been “displaced and have a story to tell as well.”

According to a 2019 Washington Post poll, most Americans know very little about slavery.

The plan to center a Juneteenth event around so-called “displaced white refugees” is deeply racist. But it’s also part of a much larger public effort to distort historical narratives and, in this case, miseducate the public about slavery in the United States.

According to a 2019 Washington Post poll, most Americans know little about slavery. On average Americans could only correctly answer two out of five basic questions about slavery. These dismal statistics are further compounded by national, state and local efforts to whitewash American history. With one foot out the door, former President Donald Trump released his Presidential Advisory 1776 Commission report downplaying slavery and even erased the presence of Native Americans.

Efforts to miseducate the public about history are intentional. They are often motivated by a desire to paint a rosier picture of the American past in order to evade accountability and redress. The Latta Plantation’s event, which promised to highlight the “feelings” of white slaveowners and Confederate soldiers, is revealingly sympathetic.

The connection to Juneteenth is itself quite offensive. Celebrated in Black communities since 1866, the day commemorates the emancipation of enslaved people in Texas and the process by which Black people claimed their freedom. It’s also an opportunity to discuss the limitations of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — too often erroneously credited for “freeing the slaves.” While the 1863 proclamation significantly expanded Black military involvement in the Civil War, it did not end slavery or even free a large number of enslaved people. The proclamation, in fact, only applied to enslaved people in rebel states — territory over which Lincoln had no control. It also did not the hundreds of thousands of slaves living in so-called border states Kentucky, Delaware, Missouri and Maryland.

Juneteenth also underscores the slow process of emancipation, a process that required more than one law or historical development. Six months before Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger issued General Orders Number 3 from Galveston, Texas, the 13th Amendment passed Congress (it would later be ratified in December 1865). Gen. Robert E. Lee then surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, marking the end of the Civil War. But even after Granger issued his order that summer, many slaveholders in Texas refused to inform enslaved people on plantations until after the season’s harvest.

The annual commemoration of Juneteenth therefore represents a significant moment of celebration among Black communities across the nation — and a significant opportunity for members of the broader public to acknowledge the painful history of enslavement. From the 17th to the 19th century, an estimated several hundred thousand African captives were transported to the territory that what would become the United States. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, there were four million enslaved Black people — an estimated 250, 000 of them resided in Texas.

Slavery in the United States was far more than work without wages. It was a brutal and exploitative economic and labor system, which relegated Black people to nothing more than property for 250 years. Unlike other forms of unfree labor throughout history, including domestic slavery in west and central Africa and indentured servitude in Europe, slavery in the United States (known as “chattel slavery”) kept Black people in bondage for life.

Contrary to the Latta Plantation’s description of slaveowners as merely “overseers,” white slaveholders did not simply supervise the activities of enslaved people on plantations.

The slavery system was not passive. Contrary to the Latta Plantation’s description of slaveowners as merely “overseers,” white slaveholders did not simply supervise the activities of enslaved people on plantations. White slaveholders exploited Black people — stripping them of all political, social, and economic rights — in an effort to maximize their own wealth and influence. They also attempted to strip the enslaved of their humanity and agency through unrelenting terror and violence. While enslaved people actively resisted slavery and devised a range of survival strategies, the violence, pain and trauma of these experiences cannot be overstated. The effects of slavey are longstanding, including shaping ideas about white supremacy and creating a massive wealth gap between Black and white Americans.

The Latta Plantation’s event, which has since been canceled after the public outcry, flies in the face of this history. It attempted to downplay the experiences of enslaved people and even garner sympathy for slaveholders and defenders of the Confederate States of America. Such attempts to miseducate the public about slavery are appalling on any day — but especially on Juneteenth.