Mecklenburg County has hired a Fairfax, Virginia, company to develop new exhibits and interpretive programming for Historic Latta Place, a former plantation where Black American were once enslaved.

The site has been closed to the public since last summer, when controversy erupted over a planned Juneteenth event that critics labeled inappropriate.

If plans go as scheduled, the Huntersville site, formally known as Historic Latta Plantation, could reopen in stages starting late next year.

The firm hired to develop a new master plan for the site, DesignMinds Inc., has worked with museums and historic sites nationwide. Among them:

  • the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History + Culture in Washington, D.C.
  • the Museum of Mississippi History in Jackson, the state capital
  • the U.S. Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
  • and the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

On Tuesday, representatives from the company met with county employees and community groups to lay out a process and timeline for its work. (Download .pdf document.)

A meet and greet with stakeholders for Historic Latta Place Revisited at Studio 229 on Brevard. Photo: Kylie Marsh

Once completed, that plan will guide operations at Latta Place for the next five to seven years, Andrew Hamilton, a DesignMinds employee, said during the meeting.

“The community involvement, and stakeholder involvement, is really key in every step of this process,” he said.

The county will pay DesignMinds $72,519.02 under a one-year contract, with options to extend through 2028, according to a county official.

Latta reimagined

The company is currently in the first phase of its work — “research and discovery” — which involves meeting with community members and “stakeholder” organizations. Officials said that phase could last six months to a year.

Documents list stakeholder organizations to include the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, the Historic Landmarks Commission, the Levine Museum of the New South, the Catawba Nation and Johnson C. Smith University.

DesignMinds also has reached out to descendants of Latta Place — people representing both the formerly enslaved who worked there as well as descendants of those who enslaved African Americans on the property. The company also has been in contact with the Catawba Nation, the pre-colonial inhabitants of the site.

“The Indigenous story is one to elevate, and we want to make sure we include that perspective,” Liz Morrell, a Mecklenburg County historic, cultural and community resource manager, told QCity Metro.

Morrell said the site is undergoing renovations and maintenance while closed to the public.

“This really is a community story in the fact that we’re working with descendants on both sides,” Hamilton said. “It is a tough story, but we want to make sure that the story is told in a correct and meaningful way.”

Juneteenth controversy

Latta Plantation closed abruptly in the summer of 2021 after the county said it would not renew its contract with Historic Latta Inc., a nonprofit which had managed the site since the 1970s.

The nonprofit had come under withering criticism from some Black residents — including Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles — over its plans to present an interpretive event that would looked at emancipation, in part, through the eyes of enslavers who had lost their human property after the war.

The controversial event event was scheduled as a Juneteenth commemoration.

Critics said the presentation, which was never shown to the public, would have cast a sympathetic light on those who enslaved other humans.

In one printed description of the event, Historic Latta said attendees would hear from “massa himself who is now living in the woods” while “his former bondsmen have now occupied his home and are now living high on the hog.”

In a tweet, Mayor Lyles suggested the tone was inappropriate, saying Juneteenth “should be celebrated and honored in the most humble way possible, with laser focus on the perspective of the inhumane treatment of an enslaved people.”

Ian Campbell, at the time Latta Plantation’s site manager, issued a statement defending the event, saying he would not apologize “for bringing a unique program to educate the public about former slaves becoming FREE!” 

Within days, the county announced that it had cut ties with the nonprofit.

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