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Does owner's racism justify tearing down a National Historic Landmark in NC?

Richard Stradling and Anna Johnson, The News & Observer on

Published in News & Features

The Masons began seeking a buyer in the late 1990s. Josephus Daniels’ grandson, Frank Daniels Jr., who was then living next door, offered $1.25 million in 1998, but the Masons voted to seek other offers.

In 2005, the Masons fought and lost an effort to have the local historic designation lifted for most of the lodge property, so a developer could carve off land for houses and townhouses. The Masons questioned whether the property should have been declared a historic landmark at all, given how much it had been altered.

About that time, a group of neighbors and others called the Josephus Daniels House Historic Landmark Association offered $3 million for the property, but the Masons declined.

Fifteen years later, in March, Beacon Street Caswell paid $3.75 million for Wakestone. Johnson, head of the temple corporation, said the three lodges are using space at other lodges in town until they can either buy or build a new building for themselves.

In May, Beacon Street applied for a permit to take the building down to the basement slab and is still awaiting a decision from the city. Efforts to reach someone from the company to comment on its plans were unsuccessful.

Johnson said lodge members didn’t talk much about the possibility that their longtime home would be torn down after the sale.

“It sort of became the elephant in the room, where we knew that it may be a possibility but we didn’t really want to think about it,” Johnson said. “It’s been a very emotional decision for a lot of people. It hurts. I wish we could have done better.”

The News & Observer remained in the Daniels family for 47 years after Josephus died. With his son Jonathan as editor, the paper became more progressive in the 1950s and 1960s, becoming a voice for school desegregation and improving race relations.

Older members of the family have first-hand memories of Wakestone, including the Victory Gardens on the lawn during World War II. But for successive generations, the house hasn’t been that important, said Frank Daniels III, a publisher who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is Josephus’ great-grandson.

Daniels said the addition in the 1950s means the house doesn’t represent what it did when his great-grandfather lived there.

 

“Wakestone was irrevocably changed at that point in time,” Daniels said. “So tearing it down now is not as dramatic as it would be had it not been modified.”

But the family does lament the narrow focus on Josephus Daniels’ white supremacy and his support of the racist activities of the Democratic Party more than a century ago.

“Josephus Daniels definitely had a controversial life, good and bad,” he said. “In every life span and every cycle of history, sometimes the good is more recognized than the bad. Right now the bad of Josephus Daniels is the narrative that people want to talk about.”

The pending demolition of the house is also short-sighted, he said.

“I think it is a shame the way we are reckoning with our history is to tear it down instead of put it into context,” he said. “But that is the tenor of the times. It has always been the tenor of the times when we find an uncomfortable place in history that we try to push it aside and hide it. That’s a very human and natural thing to do.”

For now, Wakestone is one of 39 National Historic Landmarks in North Carolina, including the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the U.S.S North Carolina battleship and the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk.

Nationwide, there are more than 2,600 National Historic Landmarks. The National Park Service, which oversees the program, says 36 had been removed or withdrawn from the list by 2015, either because they had been demolished or severely altered. If it is torn down, Wakestone would be the first removed from the list in North Carolina.

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