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A freed slave's monument to bringing people together, then and now

Raleigh's Latta House 

A freed slave's monument to bringing people together, then and now

click to enlarge Bill Shep Shepherd lived in the Latta House when wind and sun were among the amenities. Now, he lives - across the street and is its caretaker, hoping to oversee a complete restoration. - PHOTO BY YORK WILSON
  • Photo by York Wilson
  • Bill Shep Shepherd lived in the Latta House when wind and sun were among the amenities. Now, he lives across the street and is its caretaker, hoping to oversee a complete restoration.
In the years following the Civil War, former slaves had to find ways to grind out a life as a "freed" people. While the nation was moving swiftly toward becoming a segregated society, African American enclaves were sprouting on the outskirts of cities all over the South. One such outpost was Oberlin Village, an all-black community just northwest of Raleigh established in 1866 by James E. Harris, a former slave educated at Ohio's Oberlin College.

According to Culture Town: Life in Raleigh's African American Communities, a book published by the Raleigh Historic Districts Commission, Oberlin Village was "a cooperative effort between black and white Raleigh citizens to establish a community for freedom."

A key component of liberation was education, and African Americans also worked hard to establish schools in these new communities. In Oberlin Village, one of the men who answered the call was the Rev. Morgan L. Latta, a freed slave, who in 1892 established Latta University on a farm adjacent to Oberlin, near Beaver Dam Creek. Today, just one building--known as the Latta House--remains from the school that Latta established, and efforts are under way to refurbish the house and preserve it as a historic landmark.

Latta's "avowed purpose" in establishing the school, according to Culture Town, was "to solve the race problem." To make his dream a reality, Latta had to raise funds to construct buildings, outfit the school and hire faculty. "He scoured the United States and Europe for contributions to the school and is said to have taken tea with Queen Victoria."

Latta's efforts were a success, and the school, which was not a university in the modern definition of the term, built several buildings and began offering classes in both academic fields and practical skills that would help graduates earn a living. The school closed around 1920.

Like many historic properties, Latta House is the kind of structure that should have been identified as a landmark about 50 years ago, when the house was occupied and better maintained. Today, the two-story wooden house, at 1001 Parker St., sits majestically in the center of two acres of land just blocks from the Cameron Village shopping center and less than a mile from the N.C. State University campus.

A lucky visitor may encounter Latta House caretaker Bill "Shep" Shepherd, smiling face, rake in hand, and always ready to talk about the history of the house he lived in for six years. Shep, a musician who founded the Reggae band the Amateurs in the 1980s, is not sentimental about his years living in a house that lacked central heat and had spaces between the wall slats that let in the sunlight--and wind.

"It was rough living in the house," Shep said. "It was cold at times, and it was hard to live. You can look through the cracks in the walls to the outside."

Today, Shep owns a house across the street, but he still serves as caretaker for the owner, who is behind the preservation effort. The Latta House Foundation was established in 1997, giving nonprofit status to the undertaking. Shep also sits on a Latta House brainstorming committee that includes Raleigh City Council members, preservationists and Dan Becker, executive director of the Raleigh Historic Districts Commission.

Latta House is one of 130 properties designated as a Raleigh Historic Landmark, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While the cost of renovation depends on the extent of the undertaking, it's obvious that Latta House needs a massive overhaul. Pieces of plywood cover holes big enough to fall through on the attractive southern porches. A pile of gray slate roof tiles sits on the ground, picked up over the years of the A-frame roof's decline.

Shep has done some work in the basement, shoring up rotting wooden beams with braces, pouring a cement floor and installing a sump pump to dry things out. He estimates the renovation will cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite appearances, Becker says things aren't as bad as they look.

"It is a well proportioned, solid structure," Becker says. "I guess you would classify it as a blend of Queen Anne and colonial revival, influences that we were seeing at the turn of the century."

Old photographs show that Latta House was initially built as a single-story house, and had a second floor added as well as other structural changes over the years, Becker says.

The original house "is still inside" the structure that is seen today, he says.

"While it is not your high-style building, it is--for an African American at that time--an extremely substantial and significant residential structure that is, in the vernacular idiom, very well executed," he says. "It's almost jaw-dropping because of the size of the building to know what he was faced with in a society that was still marginalizing African Americans. To come into a residence that size is a pretty incredible feeling. It has a center hall, an impressive stair. It was clearly a hub of activity, and you can see that in it."

Speaking to a group of children on a recent Saturday afternoon, Shep, attired in warm, full-body coveralls, starts his story when "black people in the South mostly were slaves."

"I want to explain this right so you guys can understand," Shep tells the kids. "During slavery all black people had to work on these farms, these big plantations, and when Rev. Latta was born he was a slave. He was owned by a white family, and his family had to work for this family.

"He wrote a book about what it was like to be a slave. When he was growing up the Civil War happened, and that was when the people from the North fought with the people from the South. When Rev. Latta got free, he wanted to give something to the kids in the community who didn't have a chance to have an education...

"The school is gone except for this one house, and we want to save the house and we want to make it a community cultural center; a place that can bring all the people together."

Using his hands to point, Shep says Latta House sits on a huge square lot that straddles a neighborhood divide between the poor who live in a public housing complex and the rich who occupy newer single-family homes.

"We want to create things to bring people together on this property," he says.

Shep, who believes music is the perfect medium for bringing people together, has started an annual picnic on the Latta House lawn each spring. Bands from different ethnic origins play at the picnics.

"Reggae music also has a unification theme, with broad interest among all races and cultures," Shep says, "which makes my mission and Rev. Latta's somewhat similar."

As he walks around the property, which includes lots of splendid hardwood trees, Shep points out the large stone firepit that sits in the yard, "big enough to cook a pig."

"It's always been a place of social gathering," he says. "There's a spirit here that goes beyond the house."

Latta also sponsored a dirt street band of orphans that marched through Raleigh's streets playing for money, Shep says. "We want to rekindle that community service spirit in this one simple little house that's been standing for 100 years." EndBlock

For more information about Latta House, contact Bill Shepherd at 821-4061 or islandting@nc.rr.com.

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