CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - Nestled deep in the woods near the Mecklenburg-Cabarrus county line, the log cabin off Plaza Road Extension is hidden from street view. It would be hard to guess that the secluded, dilapidated structure is the last slave dwelling left in Mecklenburg County.
The small building will soon be saved and preserved thanks to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
Stewart Gray, the senior preservation planner of the commission, said it’s the county’s only known slave housing still standing. It’s located, along with a former plantation house, on a 28-acre property on the 12200 block of Plaza Road Extension.
Leslie Freeman, who owns the property and lives in the plantation house, said she had explored the possibility a few years ago of moving the cabin to be preserved elsewhere but couldn’t find an organization to do it.
An opportunity arose when the commission contacted her several months ago about landmark designation, which would keep the cabin on the property but ensure its preservation.
“What (the cabin) was built for, the purpose of it — it does make me sad,” Freeman said, “but I do see the value in preserving that for the history.”
A LOST HISTORY
Like much of American slave history, there’s little known about the enslaved people who once lived in the cabin. What’s known today is based on family oral history.
Freeman inherited the property from the Holcomb family five and a half years ago. Cliff Mursch, Freeman’s father, said the Holcombs purchased the property in 1939. The original owners were the Staffords, a long-established Charlotte family who owned the property from the 1760s to 1931.
Mursch said he learned about the cabin’s slave history from the late Harry Stafford and the Holcombs. A written record by one of the Holcomb family members mentions six slaves owned by the Staffords in the mid-to-late 19th century. According to that record, the land was surveyed in 1765, the cabin was built in the late 1760s and the plantation house was built in the 1770s.
County deed records confirm that James Stafford bought the property in the 1760s. The first federal census of 1790 says that he owned one slave. The 1850 federal census lists Franklin Stafford owning seven slaves, although their names were not recorded.
Mursch said the cabin was inhabited until 1948.
Don Cline, a cousin of the Holcombs, grew up visiting their house in the summers. He said an African American couple lived in the cabin in the 1940s — the wife cooked for the Holcombs and the husband worked on the family’s farm.
While researching the county’s African American historical structures in 2002, Gray said the late Harry Stafford also told him that slaves once resided in the log dwelling. He said that information, along with the cabin’s architecture being consistent with slave dwellings, confirms for whom the cabin was originally built.
Gray said its compact size and utilitarian style were common of slave dwellings. The fireplace indicates that it was a residence, not an agricultural building.
Gray said another telltale sign is the lack of windows.
“Windows are to some extent a luxury, and this was a very utilitarian structure designed for housing the enslaved,” he said.
Mecklenburg County was economically dependent on slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. According to data from the state using the National Historical Geographic Information System, there were about 1,600 slaves in the county in 1790. By 1840, that number had risen to 6,800, and slaves made up 40% of the county’s population.
‘A VERY IMPORTANT ARTIFACT’
Gray said there are few buildings left in Mecklenburg County that represent the lives of slaves. Most of the artifacts in the county from the slave era are plantation houses.
“That’s an important part of the story — the slaves were part of the system that is represented by these plantation houses,” Gray said. “But it is not nearly as evocative of the lives of the enslaved people as would be their own dwelling.”
The cabin first came to the commission’s attention in 2002. Gray learned of its existence while he was one of the chief investigators for an African American rural resources survey for the State Historic Preservation Office. He contacted the then-owners of the property about historic landmark designation, but they weren’t interested.
It’s not unusual for artifacts from the slave era to go unnoticed. In 2017, Topgolf made plans to build on land off Mallard Creek Church Road until an unmarked slave graveyard was discovered on the site.
Gray said he’s excited that Freeman wants to ensure preservation of the cabin.
“This isn’t a usual property,” Gray said. “It’s a very important artifact for the county.”
The commission voted in June to fund a survey and research report of the cabin. Usually completed by an outside consultant, the report collects facts about the historical and architectural significance of a property.
Gray said this is the first step in historic landmark designation. The report has not yet begun, but he said the commission’s survey committee will discuss starting this step on Aug. 21.
Gray said the process of landmark designation usually takes about six months. Charlotte City Council has the final say in approving the commission’s landmark recommendations.
Landmark designation ensures preservation of the structure. But, with the cabin having fallen into disrepair, Gray said he’s concerned about partial or full collapse.
“We’re worried about it deteriorating to the point that it might fail,” Gray said. “It needs immediate attention.”
He has connected Freeman with experts who are willing to volunteer time to stabilize the cabin.
“I would hate for it to just collapse,” Freeman said. “If it can be preserved that would be great.”