Replica slave cabin in Sedalia draws mixed reviews
Most every day, Marge Harlan sits in the black history library she started in this state fair town, and most every day nobody comes through the door.
The place is well stocked. Books, wall displays and other research material tell the story of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, civil rights, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Barack Obama, etc.
There’s air conditioning and nice lighting. Nobody comes.
Harlan, 85, used about $175,000 of her own money to build and furnish the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library. A white woman, Harlan embraced President Barack Obama’s call for a national conversation about race and wanted to do her part in her hometown of Sedalia, with its long history of racial division.
Nobody comes. OK, maybe two people a week.
“I sit here a lot by myself wondering if anybody will come today,” said Harlan, a retired psychologist and schoolteacher.
So she decided to add a slave cabin. She found an old barn in the next county over and hired a fellow to bring back the wood and build a replica of a plantation slave cabin. It stands behind the library in a residential neighborhood in the historically black section of this city, population of about 21,400.
Sign on the front: “This is a slave cabin. All who enter make peace with your past and move on.”
She thought the cabin would get people to flock there.
Flocking there first were two carloads of young men who cursed as they drove past, screaming that they would burn the place down.
The local NAACP doesn’t like the cabin. Neighbors don’t want to look at it. Schools aren’t making plans to visit. Civic clubs don’t want to see Harlan’s PowerPoint presentation.
But seemingly no one thinks poorly of Harlan. They say that she’s a kind, caring woman who wants to make things better during a particularly troubled time with race in America, that her heart is in the right place — even if her slave cabin isn’t.
“To sit on my porch and look over at that cabin — my grandchildren play out here,” said Carla Williams, who lives nearby. “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.”
Harlan said she thought the cabin would help.
“That was my hope. But Missouri is a hard place to talk about race.”
Rhonda Chalfant, president of the Sedalia-Pettis County NAACP, hesitates not the least when asked why people don’t like the slave cabin.
“It’s a reminder of an ugly aspect of history that people don’t want to be reminded of,” she said. “A friend of mine said it was like building a replica of Auschwitz in a Jewish neighborhood.”
Harlan, Chalfant said, has stirred Sedalia’s ugly past.
Then she goes way back to 1901 to tell about a scathing poem that appeared on the front page of the long-gone Sedalia Sentinel. It addressed the controversy of President Theodore Roosevelt inviting Booker T. Washington to dinner in the White House.
The following is the rare stanza that didn’t include the N-word:
I see a way to settle it
Just as clear as water
Let Mr. Booker T. Washington
Marry Teddy’s daughter.
At that time 115 years ago, Sedalia had its share of former slave owners, said Chalfant, who is also head of the Pettis County Historical Society and writes a column for the Sedalia Democrat. The stance by the older paper, the Sentinel, set a tone for decades of racial redlining and profiling and institutional racism.
The federal government had to intervene to force school desegregation.
“This was a city that didn’t want blacks to prosper,” said Chalfant, who is white.
A couple of years ago, she added, the Ku Klux Klan passed out fliers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Marge means well,” Chalfant said. “She wanted to use the cabin as a starting point to talk about race; she wanted to engage a town in conversation.”
A daughter who lives in California said this has been a hard time for Harlan.
“The cabin’s inflamed a lot of emotions in that town,” Hetty Harlan said. “But my mother grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. She knows injustice. She’s a psychologist who believes in a generational PTSD — that people today still suffer from the effects of slavery.
“That cabin does not celebrate slavery. She wants people to understand what happened and why it’s important today.”
Longtime resident and former business owner Pam McGrath is one of the library’s few regulars. She thinks it’s a great resource.
“Can you believe this place is in Sedalia?” she asked. “Can you believe that nobody comes?”
Why would that be?
McGrath grew up in Sedalia as part of a prominent white family. Black baby sitters came to the house to take care for her.
“The town’s white residents don’t seem to realize the racial tension that still stems from slavery, and they don’t want to do anything about it,” McGrath said.
“The blacks are just alarmed by the reality.”
Raymond Taylor, 77, has been to the library several times. He’s lived here all his life.
“I remember the bad times here,” he said as he worked outside a nearby church. “But she (Harlan) doesn’t mean any harm. She’s a good lady.
“I know the young people don’t like what she’s done. I guess not a lot of people do. But folks here don’t usually do things together.
“There’s not a lot of mixin’ in this town.”
Letter to Obama
Harlan graduated from Smith-Cotton High School in 1949 and then went to what is now the University of Central Missouri to become a teacher.
Her first job at a one-room school in Illinois paid $175 a month if she stoked the fire, $150 if someone else had to. She described the students who she said were from Appalachia as “immigrants.”
She later became a psychologist in Sedalia. That’s how she met Rose Nolen, a black journalist and author who often talked about the community’s lack of black history. Nolen started a publication called Mid-Missouri Black Watch.
In one edition, Nolen wrote: “We are in the business of opening old wounds and presenting them in a way we hope will encourage our readers to examine them. We want to be part of the healing process.”
At one point, Nolen interviewed Harlan for a story. Through her, Harlan and her late husband, Jerry, became aware of the need for a black history venue, so they bought her home and built the library on the site. Jerry Harlan died before it opened. Nolen died last year.
The library open house in 2013 drew about 30 people, but attendance has since dried up to nothing.
Bookshelves are full. Exhibits cover the walls, even in the bathroom. Perched on the toilet, one can look to the right and read a display titled “African-American Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1970.”
Out back, the cabin sits empty. A poster of President Obama hangs above the mantle. There’s also a photograph of black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
Cotton, tobacco and sugar cane, which Harlan planted, wave in the breeze out front.
After the uproar about the cabin, she wrote a letter to Obama:
“I am writing you because although I am following your directions about ‘having an honest conversation about race,’ I keep getting beat up!!
“We did this to honor her (Nolen) and the Black Sedalia community on the north side (always segregated). Just wanted to be in touch and vent a bit I guess. I believe you are a great president and I am very proud of you.
“Your picture hangs over the fireplace in the cabin.”
She’s not yet heard back.
These days, Marge Harlan feels alone in her own town. None of her children live close. She drives in daily from the farm where she lives to the library. She tidies things up, straightens books and maybe works on a new exhibit.
And wonders if today somebody will come.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182