Descendants of plantation home come together for new purpose--An APR News Feature
The Klein House is a piece of Alabama history. The plantation-style house in Harperville is largely empty. There are wooden floors, a small staircase, and has peeling, old wallpaper.
“This is an agrarian simple house. This is not a fancy plantation house,” said Nell Gottlieb, the President of the nonprofit Klein Arts & Culture. “The house is called Klein. It was built in 1841 by people enslaved on the place, are the ones you know that put it together and so at the height of it, it was 5,000 acres and had 99 enslaved people who worked it."
One room has a plain table and an empty fireplace. The peeling wallpaper has one spot that has an African-American man looking up at a white woman on a horse. Gottlieb spent her summers here when she visited as a child. She inherited the property a little over a year ago. It’s is now a nonprofit called Klein Arts and Culture, and she’s not the only one trying to preserve it.
Peter Datcher lives in Harpersville and is a farmer and a family historian.
“I knew what this place was from the time I was 7 or 8 years old,” he said. “I knew what this place was. I knew what the other plantation was."
Datcher often carries a laser pointer, which flashes from picture to picture, or object to object. He tells stories as he moves his laser.
"Because they are so old, they were from the 1870s. They were made out of tin,” he said.
Datcher and Gottlieb share a connection to Klein House. She is white and Datcher is black. He said both their families lived here, but his ancestors were not here by choice.
“On both sides of my family the grandparents were the children of slaves,” Datcher said, “so she didn’t know about her history but she learned about ours, and she always pass it down."
So, a descendant of slaves and a descendant of the slaveholders are now working together to fix up the Klein House. Gottlieb said the point is to form a vision to bring in art, education, and cultural events that will focus on themes of equality and social justice.
Gottlieb, Datcher, and the rest of the board members at Klein House want to hold events that rethink their shared past. A recent event was part of the Alabama Dance Festival. The Wideman-Davis dance company out of South Carolina created a performance called Migratuse Ataraxia, which concentrates on the experience of black people in antebellum spaces.
“It was a blank canvas for us to kind of work in as we made an effort to think about enslaved Africans, their humanity,” company co-founder Thaddeus Davis said.“But not in bondage, but their humanity in spite of...this notion of servitude and bondage and how we can lift up their humanity and live for each other and care for each other as humans.”
Davis and his dance collaborators, Tanya Wideman-Davis and Michaela Pilar Brown, point to the importance of exploring black life inside an antebellum home and what it means when they have to change the performance each night based on the audience’s placement in each room.
After the performance, audience members ate a meal and had a discussion about the cast and crew of Ataraxia. The crowd included Pat Bell, a historian, and writer visiting from Philadelphia.
“The dancers and the actors are amazing in their ability to create a meaningful experience simply with them not saying a word most of the performance in the rooms,” Bell said.
Gottlieb said that’s the point of Klein House.
“Students come in and sit and absorb the walls. Letting the walls speak…then have art instillations, have conversations, have house concerts in here all related to bringing people together," she said.
The Klein House hopes to create more moments like the ones from Migratuse Ataraxia, where people can talk about the complicated past, and the effects that the past has on the present.
A previous version of this story incorrectly had Peter Datcher's last name written as Thatcher. We regret the error and have corrected our mistake.