Why Does America Romanticize Slavery?

Illustration for article titled Why Does America Romanticize Slavery?

"This historic treasure, built in 1817, is a phenomenal estate that has very rich history. The historic mansion was designed by Henry Latrobe, designer of the U.S. Capitol building and the finest antebellum architecture. This historical landmark, on 70 acres, is complete with four bedrooms, 4 1/2 baths, a pool, cabana, tennis courts, chicken barns, two ponds, old smokehouse, slave quarters, two barns, potting shed and additional caretaker's home."


And it's located just "25 minutes north of uptown," the ad continues. That's uptown Charlotte, N.C., where, in little more than a year, Democratic Party delegates will nominate Barack Obama for a second term as president.

The real estate company didn't really need to repeat some version of the word "historic" three times when describing Ingleside, the home first occupied by Daniel Forney, a major in the War of 1812 and a member of Congress, as was his father. The majestic mansion, built from bricks made by — as the essay in the agency's packet calls them — his "toiling slaves," is as much a part of the history of the United States as its first black president. What a coincidence that the large drawing room mimics the East Room of the White House.

As I walked through a fraction of those 70 acres, the weight of that history — as well as the July North Carolina heat, humidity and insects — made me take refuge in the cool basement kitchen. I wish those who continue to misuse some romanticized version of slavery to gain modern-day political gain would take in the view from "the big house," as the real estate agent called it, past the dog pen to the wooden slave quarters, now abandoned to red wasps, archaeologists and historians.

Would that somehow prevent some from disgracing the memories of the men, women and children who lived and died in the "peculiar institution" whose legacy our country still struggles to own up to?

"After careful deliberation and wise insight and input from valued colleagues we deeply respect," reads one of those nonapology apologies from the Family Leader, the socially conservative group headed by Bob Vander Plaats, "we agree that the statement referencing children born into slavery can be misconstrued."

The "statement" that caused such a ruckus is in the preamble to a "marriage vow" signed by GOP presidential hopefuls Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum; it condemns pornography and same-sex marriage but finds a silver lining in slavery. That odious institution may have "had a disastrous impact on African-American families," it reads, "yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President."


As many of those who have reacted in horror to the statement have said, America did not recognize the marriages of slaves, who were considered property. When, in defiance of that ban, men and women in the most brutal circumstances came together in love and started a family, it could be and was ripped apart on the auction block at their owners' whim and will.

The notion that it was that very violation of every law of human decency that weakened African-American families was not acknowledged by the Family Leader. I will, however, give the group credit (the bad kind) for pointing out, to anyone who had not noticed, that President Barack Obama is African American as it floated the argument that — in comparison — he somehow makes slavery look good.


What drew me to take a look at Ingleside, the stately property on the National Register of Historical Places? A friend — a little surprised and a lot upset — showed me the advertisement for its sale. She took to Facebook to express her "outrage" and to say that she told the real estate agent, "I found it offensive and insensitive as an African American." My husband and I were curious.

Though I share my friend's heritage, it wasn't outrage I felt but profound sadness as I realized that the history of this house, constructed in 1817, mirrors America's own — with its lovingly preserved mansion alongside a crumbling slave house. It's a history of privilege and neglect.


The inhabitants of one building lived free lives in Lincoln County, N.C., in a home "known far and wide for its hospitality," the essay says. "A golden stream of prosperity flowed into the coffers of the fortunate owners of all this." They passed their good fortune down, something that was not possible for those who worked there, not for pay but for survival.

I am glad that the real estate ad mentions them, if only as a footnote. (To see the words "slave quarters" is jarring, but you can't exactly describe it as a guesthouse for the guests who couldn't leave.)


It is U.S. history, as is all that happened in the house after Maj. Forney and his descendants gave way to other owners, such as a former North Carolina legislator pictured in a photo on the wall, in a seat of power with John F. Kennedy and Terry Sanford. It is a history with slow but steady progress for the ancestors of those in the other house, quickened by the actions and sacrifice of many of them.

Today I really could move into the big house, though at the $3 million asking price, the next owner won't be me (insert journalism-salary joke here). My family does live in a home in a lovely Charlotte neighborhood where some deeds still include the now unenforceable racial restriction that "this lot shall be owned and occupied by people of the Caucasian race only," written by the original developers. As I told NPR when that story made news and some in the community wanted the wording removed, "I think people should know that history — and it's not that long ago."


If Ingleside were mine, I would be sure to include the tumbledown shack on any grand tour, a monument to those who built this country and a rebuke to those who would disrespect them with fairy tales.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning Charlotte, N.C.-based journalist, is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and the Nieman Watchdog blog. She was national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter.  


Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.