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Opinion

Bill Kirby Jr.: Market House, repurposing leaders say, has a story to be told

Landmark building won’t be ‘just sitting in the middle of a traffic circle,’ mayor says

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Always give credit where credit is due.

And when it comes to the historic downtown structure that has been such a point of controversy for the past 2½ years and just what to do with it, a community can take a deep breath when it comes to the Market House story.

It will not be demolished.

It will not be moved to an obscure location.

Its story will be told.

“It gives it some purpose rather than just sitting in the middle of a traffic circle being a reminder of whatever people viewed it as,” Mayor Mitch Colvin was saying Monday night after Semone Pemberton and Milette Harris of the Fayetteville-Cumberland Human Relations Commission told members of the City Council that the building should be a centerpiece for education about its history.

Yamile Nazar is director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Fayetteville-Cumberland Human Relations Department. Pemberton is chairwoman of the commission; Harris is the vice chairwoman.

“We do need to account and atone for what happened in Fayetteville,” Harris said about the Market House, circa 1832, where Black slaves once were sold at auction.

It’s been a sensitive subject in the African American community for decades in this community, and it reached a fever pitch on May 30, 2020, when protesters reacting to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police officers gathered in downtown Fayetteville. Some in the crowd took out their anger on the landmark by damaging the Market House and setting fire to its stairwell.

The city turned to the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service and the Fayetteville-Cumberland Human Relations Commission to figure out how to repurpose the structure and tell its history in an effort to seek common ground that would bring a polarized community together.

They did, telling the council on March 28 that 80 community residents had been asked about what they wanted for the Market House. And that’s where City Council members, led by Antonio Jones and Courtney Banks-McLaughlin, deserve credit.

“It’s somewhat disheartening to hear the lack of community input,” Jones told Dion Lyons of the Department of Justice, Nazar and Pemberton after they presented a report about an in-person community survey that summed up the responses of those mere 80 people. “We need the community involved a little more.”

Every council member, including the mayor, was in agreement with Jones.

‘Education is most important’

Back to the community, Pemberton says, the Market House repurposing folks went with a repurposing of its own.

“I was here last in March,” Pemberton told the council at Monday’s work session at City Hall. “At that time, you raised concerns about the number of participants that we had and how they were selected, and you requested that we go back to the community and get more input. And that's what we did. So we increased the number of respondents to more than 500.”

Ultimately, Harris told the council, the common thread going forward is to tell the Market House story through its history but to tell it accurately.

“So the committee feels that education is most important,” Harris said. “What they mean by that is a true and accurate account of Fayetteville history to include the Market House. Without that, we don't feel that we can move forward with some of the events that we would like to do while we're compiling that education.”

What the commission wants, Harris said, is a place where art and local artists can be a part of the story. A place where the spoken and written words can be a part of the story. A place for re-enactments of the story. And all of it at the four corners of the Market House for all to witness. A narrative, she said, that begins with reaching out to scholars from local universities to research and tell the Market House story.

“If we don’t get the history right,” Harris said, “we’ll be right back up here.”

They don’t want to talk about slaves.

“Terminology is important,” Harris told the council. “So we're asking that that Market House plaque also be changed to reflect ‘enslaved.’ … Right now, it reads, ‘in memory and honor of those indominable people who were stripped of their dignity.’”

Strike the word “shame” from the current plaque, she said. Replace it with “strength.”

FYI

Harris says she did her own research with Google searches about the Market House.

“Some of that information that's out there says there were no slaves sold at the Market House,” she told Councilman Larry Wright. “There’s other evidence that shows there were slaves sold at the Market House.”

That’s where the scholars will come in, and they should include Bruce Daws, the city historian.

“Much of the information we have comes from studies conducted by historians, period newspaper accounts, journals, etc.,” Daws says. “One of our sources is the late John C. Cavanagh, professor emeritus of the department of history at Suffolk University, who was hired by the city of Fayetteville to research the State House and Market House. Slaves were sold at the Market House in the area of Market Square. Most of these sales that occurred at the Market House can be found in court documents and newspaper advertisements related to estate liquidation or indebtedness.”

He references Cavanagh’s report that said:

“A matter of peculiar interest which surfaces in this study concerns the extent to which slaves were sold at each of the buildings under examination (State House and Market House),” Cavanagh wrote. “The evidence presented herein on slave sales is only suggestive of the frequency with which they occurred between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, until slavery was abolished in 1865.

“A careful examination of the evidence on slave transactions reveals not only that they took place at both the State House and the Market House, but also that the sales occurred at both sites sporadically and infrequently over the years. Sales were spaced on the average about two months apart, if that frequently, and in most instances very few slaves were involved in each transaction. Moreover, the Market Square site provided only one of a variety of locations where slaves changed owners in Fayetteville and in the surrounding countryside. Additional sites include private homes and business places of slave owners or dealers, or the courthouse at James Square, or in one of the local hostelries where itinerant slave buyers occasionally attracted local customers through advertisements in the newspapers.

“The vast majority of these sales occurred when a slave owner dies,” Cavanagh wrote. “When a living owner offered slaves for sale, it was usually to discharge debts or taxes. Slaves were also leased for periods of times.”

Cavanagh was 85 when he died March 30, 2019.

Epilogue

Let new text tell the story of suffering and perseverance, the Human Relations Commission encourages, to reflect what today is freedom and justice. It took some prodding by Antonio Jones, Courtney Banks-McLaughlin and the council back in March, and this time Yamile Nazar, Semone Pemberton, Milette Harris and those who volunteered their time to this end apparently got it right for sure. Let the Market House repurposing continue, and may the Market House narrative be told tried and true with “purpose rather than just sitting in the middle of a traffic circle being a reminder of whatever people viewed it as.”

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at billkirby49@gmail.com or 910-624-1961.

 

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