“Even a good dog has to die,” said Betty Howard, wife of engineer T.C. Howard, as Raleigh’s swoopy Catalano House succumbed to the demo crew six years ago.
So it was with the shambling, weathered Latta House, the last vestige of Latta University, a dream child of the Rev. Morgan Latta, a freed slave who dedicated his life to clearing the waters fouled by slavery and the civil war.
With a synchronistic roar audible to even the most jaded observer, the Latta House was destroyed by fire on a rainy Monday morning at 4 a.m., one week before MLK day.
Bill Shepherd, hired by owner Adryon Clay to caretake the property, headed up the Latta House Foundation for 10 years, a nonprofit formed to educate the public on Latta’s dream. Shep and volunteers tried to salvage what they could in an eerie reenactment of the Tiananmen Square stand-off. A hired excavator advanced on the smoldering pile, preparing to load the remains into dump trucks and take them to the landfill, like so much rubbish.
Shep asked the operator, “Why didn’t you stop?”
“Why didn’t you move?” came the driver’s response. “I don’t understand why no one at the city wanted to do an archeological dig at the site, to even take a look before they took it all away.” The demo crew ended up helping the volunteers save bricks from the house’s two toppled chimneys, some with finger impressions from a century ago.
The house may be gone, but the dream lives.
“I want folks to know what a brave thing this man did, setting up a school then, at the end of Reconstruction, to prepare young people to enter a world they really didn’t know anything about,” Shep said. “I want the land to remain true to Rev. Latta’s vision of a school for Oberlin community, named by freedmen after the war” (an allusion to a liaison with Oberlin College in Ohio, a stop along the Underground Railroad).
Shep was sanguine about the loss. “It’s tragic, but on the bright side, it’s cheaper to build a new one than try and match all that old lumber.”
The owner’s partner expressed a similar vision. “We don’t know whether the land is going to go to North Carolina Land Conservancy, but it’s going to go to a reputable organization. There’ll be a memorial to Rev. Latta,” said Ed Barnard. “You know what it’s gonna do? It’s gonna sit there just like it’s always been and it’s never gonna change.”
Folks from the community have been touring the wreckage like a wake. Many of the mourners at the site have questioned the speed at which the site was cleaned.
“I just never knew anything about it except from Shep,” said Ester Battle, 43, gathering one of the rude handmade bricks. “I think if more folks would have known, it might could have been saved,” she said. “I’m a history freak. I never heard about it from a book or a museum. That’s the problem.”