Local News

Group Seeks to Preserve Site of School For Freed Slaves' Children

Posted September 4, 2007 11:34 p.m. EDT
Updated September 4, 2007 11:56 p.m. EDT

— A historic preservation group will talk with the Raleigh City Council on Wednesday about what to do with a site where the children of freed slaves were once educated.

The Latta House Foundation wants to rededicate the former site of the house as a historic landmark and to build a community center and museum on it. Rev. Morgan London Latta, a former slave, founded Latta University at the site, on 2 acres off present-day Oberlin Road, in the late 1800s to educate poor blacks.

A fire damaged most of the Latta House, and bulldozers cleared the rest away in early January.

"Since the fire, we've been doing some salvaging efforts," Judith Gest, executive director of the foundation, said. "There is still a historic well that is intact here. We have salvaged more than 3,000 bricks."

One of the fire's most devastating effects was to rob the site of its designation as a historic landmark, Gest said.

"We just want to try to reestablish where we've left off. Once the house was gone, it lost that national historic designation," she said.

The foundation was founded by land owner Adryon Clay and Bill Shepherd, the property's caretaker, in 1997 to maintain the house and promote its history.

Latta was born into slavery in 1856 on the Cameron Family Plantation. He wrote a book describing his boyhood days on the plantation, his struggles to feed his family, getting an education at Shaw University, and his work to establish Latta University.

City council members said they agree on the importance of preserving this piece of Raleigh's history. However, talks among the foundation, City Council and land owner have gone slowly in the seven months since the house burned.

"In any area that's growing fast like Raleigh, one of the things you really want to take a lot of care to do is to make sure you preserve the heritage and the history of that area," Councilman Russ Stephenson said.

Owner Adryon Clay told WRAL that she wants to donate the land to the city and for it to be preserved as open parkland. Such plans could include a memorial to Latta, Clay said.

When crews arrived to clear the site a week after the fire, it set off an emotional standoff with demonstrators wanting to preserve the site. Police eventually settled the dispute, protesters were allowed to rescue some items, and workers were allowed to clear the debris.

Since then, the site has sat vacant, and foundation officials said they'd like to begin moving forward with Clay and the City Council.

"We want to make sure that we re-establish a partnership," Gest said.

Council members said they see a long road ahead before a final vision emerges of what should stand on the former Latta House site.

"To get that vision coalesced with the right group of people is probably going to be still the hardest part," Stephenson said.