A slave cabin constructed on the property of the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library located on Lima Alley has become controversial for many citizens of Sedalia.
The cabin isn’t being looked upon as favorable or positive in respect to black history. Some young residents have threatened to burn it down. Library Director and former Sedalia psychologist Margaret Harlan gave several reasons for having the cabin built.
“I wanted to present the history in a venue that was possibly more accessible and less threatening,” said Harlan, who is also the secretary for the Sedalia-Pettis County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Against advice from several members of the community, Harlan decided to go ahead and build the cabin that faces Cooper Street. Around the cabin she added crops, such as cotton, tobacco and peanuts, and planned to fill the cabin with displays depicting different eras in black history.
Harlan also attached a sign to the front of the cabin stating, “This is a slave cabin. All who enter make peace with the past and move on.”
Harlan said members of the local NAACP had divided opinions on the slave cabin. Their meeting April 20 was described as “stormy.”
“You see, my belief is if that still bothers you so much you have some work to do,” Harlan said. “It’s a turbulent issue, I knew it would be. To me, you go through that to get well.”
The cabin has opened a wound that is becoming difficult to heal. When the Democrat spoke with Harlan on April 21, the sign had been removed from the cabin by an unknown person.
Sedalia-Pettis County NAACP President Dr. Rhonda Chalfant said Harlan built the cabin and sign on her own and not under the sanction of the local NAACP.
“The NAACP as an organization had nothing to do with it,” said Chalfant, who has a Ph.D. in history with an emphasis in 19th century U.S. social history. “The NAACP exists to make certain that the constitutional rights of Americans are preserved.
“I think it was an ill-advised effort,” she added. “It was intended in a positive way. But because input from the community was not sought or acknowledged prior to its building, it went ahead. Perhaps it shouldn’t have.
“It is impossible to speak for members of another culture,” she said. ” … As a white person, I cannot speak as a black person. I can speak on behalf of the constitution, and on the bylaws and constitution of the NAACP. I can speak out of respect for the accomplishments of African-Americans.”
Chalfant noted she agrees with Beverly Chapman, a victim advocate for the Pettis County Prosecutor’s Office, who likened the cabin to a Nazi concentration camp replica.
“Expecting black people to drive by a reminder of the most negative aspect of their culture’s history every day is comparable to expecting a Holocaust survivor or descendant to drive past a replica of Auschwitz,” Chalfant said.
She added that black history should focus on positive African-American achievements.
“Especially during the 20th century,” she noted.
Harlan said she built the cabin instead of another type of monument because she thought it was significant.
“This is the real purpose why we’re here,” Harlan said. “We are trying to improve race relations, but if we never talk about it, we aren’t going to get anywhere. It doesn’t help to sweep it under the rug.”
Stephen Boggs, who was speaking as a concerned citizen, said many local people have tried to build a dialog with Harlan about black culture, but she hasn’t listened.
“My take on the whole thing is, it should never have been done,” he noted. “The first thing it evokes is negativity, right off the bat. Marge, her heart is in the right place but she doesn’t listen to people.
“I told her right to her face, ‘you don’t know anything about black history or black people,’” he added. “She’s intelligent in her field but … she should get on board with the community. The better way to have done this would have been to choose something that is positive.”
Boggs agreed with Chalfant that a positive monument depicting great black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama or Frederick Douglass would have been more appropriate.
“In the beginning you have positive things, you get people on board with the positive,” he said. “Nobody is trying to forget the past in the sense that it didn’t exist. That’s not our thing, but we know very well about all the negative things.”
Boggs also said he didn’t think adding the crops beside the cabin was a good idea either because they further enforced the negativity, instead of the history, of the display.
“We know what we went through!” he added. “We know about that, we don’t need to be reminded.”
Boggs said he has talked with several other “influential” people in the black community and the majority are opposed to the slave cabin.
“I tried to explain, it’s not going to work,” he said. “She has basically no support from the black community. I don’t agree with the people being complacent and apathy setting in, but I understand it. Because after you fight for so long, you give up.
“Yes, we know giving up is not the answer …” he added. “I’m not agreeing with that. I’m just saying I understand the view. We were trying to get her to understand that. Before you make big leaps, talk to the people.”
Sedalia resident Noah Eugene Poole said he believed the sign attached to the cabin caused the most controversy.
“When it came up in the meeting the other night at DCO (Diversified Community Outreach), I wasn’t aware of the sign that was put in front of the library,” he noted. “I think the sign is what caused a lot of the problems.”
Poole said building a replica of a slave cabin isn’t what black youths need. The building only opens wounds for their culture.
“I think it’s important that we instill in the minds of young blacks and black people that they come from kings and queens,” he added. “They might have gone through an era of slavery and Jim Crow, but we have overcome that part of our lives. It is gone, but it will never be forgotten.
“We shouldn’t forget it, because we are living in a time where even some of the candidates running for office are spewing hatred that could take us back into the same times,” he noted. “We have to be aware of what’s going on and stay alert.”
Many residents have said Harlan’s heart is in the right place but that she doesn’t understand African-American culture. Poole tends to disagree. His sentiments mirror those of Chapman.
“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “This is my opinion, I don’t believe that she would have gone into a Jewish neighborhood and constructed a furnace, and wrote the same words on the furnace.”
Poole stated that to remedy the situation there needs to be communication. Harland needs to be “mindful” of where the black culture comes from and she needs to give a voice to those who oppose the cabin.
Boggs too would like to see a remedy.
“She needs to sit down with a group of us, who she knows is in her corner, and talk and listen,” he noted. “Listen to what we say, and then move on from there.
“Whether she really wants to or not, to be open minded …” he added. “To get something done, she needs to just sit back and listen. I think honestly that would remedy a whole lot of things.”
Chalfant agreed with both men.
“I would like to see a calm and reasonable dialog among people who are willing to listen to input from others,” Chalfant added.
Faith Bemiss can be reached at 530-0289 or @flbemiss; photos by Faith Bemiss | Democrat.