Replica slave cabin raises questions in Missouri community
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — An 85-year-old white widow’s opening of a replica slave cabin to attract people to her Missouri black history library is drawing the ire of an activist who considers the site an “in-your-face reminder” about slavery.
Schools aren’t making plans to visit, and civic clubs don’t want to hear presentations from Marge Harlan, a retired psychologist and school teacher who used about $175,000 of her own money to build and furnish the library in west-central Missouri’s Sedalia in hopes of salving race relations, The Kansas City Star reported.
Rhonda Chalfant, the Sedalia-Pettis County NAACP’s president, has decried the cabin, saying that a friend likened it to “building a replica of Auschwitz in a Jewish neighborhood.” Harlan was warned the cabin — tucked behind the library — would “be divisive” but pressed ahead anyway, Chalfant said.
“It’s being viewed negatively because most blacks don’t want to be reminded of the horrors of slavery,” Chalfant told The Associated Press on Tuesday from Sedalia, where roughly 85 percent of the 21,500 residents are white.
“There does need to be dialogue about race and how we as humans can understand each other better and get along better,” she added. “But it has to come without the anger that has been precipitated with the building of the slave cabin. It’s an in-your-face reminder, and some people are very angry.”
Harlan, who serves as the local NAACP’s secretary, said she was inspired by President Barack Obama’s call for a national conversation about race. But generally only a couple people a week visit the 3-year-old library.
The library is named after black Missouri journalist Rose Nolen, who died last year, and is located on the site of Nolen’s former home. It is stocked with books, wall displays and other research material, with cotton, tobacco and sugar cane growing outside.
She believed the cabin, which opened a few months ago and is fashioned from lumber from an old barn, would help boost the library’s attendance in a historically black section of Sedalia. A sign on the cabin’s front has urged that “all who enter make peace with your past and move on,” and a bench in the middle, Harlan says, is for “people to be able to sit, read and think.”
“I feel the only way to get over something is to go through it. Don’t just push it down and pretend it’s not there,” Harlan told the AP. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like to live in a nation where the government and police didn’t support me and take care of me. It just blows my mind.”
The cabin, she says, “is to promote discussion — for whites to realize the horrors that blacks went through and for blacks to be proud of themselves that they made it. Blacks have been the strong ones, the resilient ones. That’s what I want the slave cabin to openly represent. That’s my aim.”
“To sit on my porch and look over at that cabin — my grandchildren play out here,” Carla Williams, who lives nearby, told the Star. “I’ve talked to Marge about it. I don’t think she meant any malice by putting it up, but she should have talked to people first.
“We’re not ashamed of our heritage, but it is a painful heritage. We’re trying to move on from that.”