The Rose M. Nolen Black History Library in Sedalia wasn’t getting many visitors. In an effort to draw more patrons, Marge Harlan, a retired psychologist and school teacher who now serves as the library’s director, built a replica of a slave cabin behind the library to show what living conditions had been like for slaves.
For a rustic aesthetic, Harlan had the cabin constructed from old barn board sourced in nearby Bunceton and stones found in the hills surrounding the area. She also planted a heritage garden, which includes period crops such as cotton, rice, tobacco, sugar cane, peanuts and sweet potatoes. A sign posted at the front of the cabin asks that “all who enter make peace with your past and move on.”
But instead of drawing crowds, the cabin drew criticism — and that criticism made national headlines earlier this summer. Some saw the cabin as a reminder of a painful past, and others felt it was inappropriate for Harlan, who is white, to build such a structure.
However, playwright Karen Jones Meadows, whose “Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman” is included in the University Concert Series, said the cabin — and Harlan’s efforts — are worthy of discussion. She plans to visit Harlan and tour the cabin with a group of MU students in the days leading up to her performance.
I was very moved that someone 85 years old with enough money to do anything she wanted chose this in an effort to help harmonize a centuries-long divide of pervasive racial issues. Our natural state is harmony. If disharmony were natural, we’d be at peace with it. We’ve learned to settle and adapt, which isn’t the same as experiencing peace, well-being and freedom from caring. Race is an overshadowing illness in our society.
I think a slave cabin is not a reminder of abuse, but of resilience and creativity of generations of African-descended people who weren’t broken and should be recognized for power and contributions, most of which are purposely suppressed and unknown. I’ve been studying our history for decades, and every day I learn something new.
I never say “slave,” always “enslaved people.” Having the generic title “slave” takes our common humanity away. “Slave” automatically marginalizes. There is no country, no origin called “slave.” Then and now, we come from people, a continent, with myriad cultures and traditions, and share the same commonalities of all people.
This interests me because I facilitate Culture in the Quarter experiential adventure workshops, where we explore the history of our ancestors, which translates into great-great-great-great- and beyond uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins, and their ingenuity, arts, rebellion, relationships and cuisine despite circumstances. I also know that people of many races here and abroad were instrumental in the ending of U.S. slavery, for reasons more than race. If we — I mean all of us — know our/the real history, we can move on. If we get stuck in unnecessary illusions, denials, cover-ups and blockages for a sense of protection or superiority, we lose our personal and collective progress.
I see it as a place to gather and go to the core of issues. The Charles Wright Museum in Detroit has an amazing replica of a middle passage ship. When you’re on it, you feel it. You connect with uncles, aunts, grandparents, sisters, husbands, et cetera. You feel the lineage in your cells. You know the agony and become emotional yet strengthened because for a moment you have an inkling of what our ancestors went through and that they had the substance of spirit to transcend conditions — and if they did it, we certainly can. I have been in the cemetery of enslaved people, and it’s actively empowering and enlightening. I’ve also been at Harriet Tubman’s gravesite, and regardless of background, you know you are in the presence of enduring wholeness.
Shame has no place in the context of the African American life experience during enslavement or any other time.
Karen Jones Meadows’ Harriet’s Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman
7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 27
$30 – $35
Karen Jones Meadows will meet with Marge Harlan at 1 p.m. Sept. 24 at the Rose M. Nolen Black History Library, 109 Lima Alley, Sedalia.
A school show will be staged 11 a.m. Monday, Sept. 26 at Missouri Theatre. Admission to school shows is free for students and two chaperones per group of 30. Additional chaperone or adult tickets can be purchased for $5.
Jones Meadows also will lead two free workshops for members of the community. Culture in the Quarter, to be held Wednesday, 3 – 5 p.m. Sept. 28 at Missouri Theatre, explores African American resilience and creativity through arts, relationships, ingenuity, cuisine and rebellion. Towers of Power, to be held 1 – 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29 in Room CLC 103 at the Missouri United Methodist Church, 204 S. 9th Street.
Story by Caroline Dohack