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

·10 min read

There are three National Historic Landmarks in the city of Raleigh — the State Capitol, Christ Episcopal Church across the street and a gray stone mansion on the edge of the Hayes Barton neighborhood.

Soon, one of them will likely be gone.

The house was built for Josephus Daniels in the early 1920s, as he was nearing the end of an eight-year tenure as U.S. Secretary of the Navy. Daniels was later U.S. ambassador to Mexico under Franklin Roosevelt and for more than 50 years was owner and editor of The News & Observer until his death in 1948.

Daniels was also an avowed white supremacist who used his newspaper to vilify North Carolina’s Black residents and stoke outrage among whites over political and economic gains by Blacks. Daniels and The N&O were instrumental in urging the violent overthrow of the elected biracial government in Wilmington by white supremacists in 1898.

It’s that part of his legacy that prompted the Raleigh Historic Development Commission and the City Council to remove Wakestone, as the Daniels house was called, from the list of Raleigh Historic Landmarks last winter. While being a National Historic Landmark may be a bigger distinction, it was the local designation that came with rules that largely prevented the owner from altering or demolishing the building.

De-listing Wakestone made it easier for the longtime owner, The Masonic Lodge of Raleigh, to sell the property to a developer, Beacon Street Caswell LLC, which plans to build houses on the site. Beacon Street is seeking a permit from the city to demolish the house and a large addition the Masons built in the 1950s.

The demolition follows other efforts to remove Daniels from the Raleigh landscape after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers last May fueled a national movement around systemic racism.

Last summer, the Wake County school board voted to rename Daniels Middle School in Raleigh after Oberlin, the community founded by African-Americans after the Civil War. That same day, the Daniels family removed a statue of Josephus from Nash Square across from the former N&O building.

Tearing down Wakestone is necessary to continue undoing the legacy of Josephus Daniels, says Kerwin Pittman, a social justice activist who serves on the N.C. Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.

“To grant a permit to demolish this home pushes this rectification a step further,” Pittman wrote in an email. “To continue to let the home of a known white supremacist remain erected sends a direct message that Black Lives Do Not Matter.”

But Raleigh shouldn’t rectify its past by erasing it, says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina. Daniels has a complex legacy, Howard says; a white supremacist, yes, but also a prominent national figure who championed public education and causes of the poor and working class.

”Preserving buildings is not about honoring individuals; it’s about recognizing where history happened,” Howard wrote in an essay in The N&O. “Historic preservation tangibly tells history’s complex stories, but only if the buildings survive.”

Was money the main motivation?

Howard says the request to remove Wakestone from the city’s list of historic landmarks was a cynical move to take advantage of the Black Lives Matter movement and cash in on the property, which includes nearly 4 acres in one of the city’s priciest neighborhoods.

The de-listing request described the historic designation as an honor and used racist cartoons from The N&O and citations from various historical sources to illustrate Daniels’ racism. Scott Miller, the land planner who wrote the request on behalf of the Masons, said the historic designation was “a celebration of accomplishment,” and questioned whether it would happen today.

“Is white supremacy the kind of accomplishment upon which the City of Raleigh wishes to officially confer recognition?” Murray wrote. “What lesson does that convey?”

Murray also said the Masons were worried their building would become the target of unrest as social justice protesters looked for new ways to attract attention. But local activists said Wakestone wasn’t a high priority for them.

Dawn Blagrove, executive director of the anti-racism group Emancipate NC, says the decision to remove the landmark designation was “clearly and without question about economics.”

“It was never about concerns of social unrest,” Blagrove said. “It was never about concerns for being insensitive to Black folks and Black communities that were decimated by the Wilmington race riots. It’s about money. And I think it’s incredibly disrespectful to the memory of the families and the people who were directly and indirectly impacted by race riots.”

That said, Blagrove says she would not be sad to see the building demolished. She only wishes there was “some type of reconciliation or restorative justice” for the families who were harmed by the Wilmington riots.

Daniels’ racism left out of landmark applications

The application that resulted in Wakestone becoming a National Historic Landmark in 1976 made only passing reference to Daniels’ support of white supremacy and the Wilmington coup d’etat of 1898. The resolution that made the property a local landmark in 1990 makes no reference to them at all.

That’s a big reason for removing the designation now, say members of the Raleigh Historic Development Commission. In a two-page statement, commission members said Wakestone became a landmark solely based on Daniels’ life and work, not because of the house’s architectural significance, and the city’s picture of Daniels was incomplete.

“Facts about Daniels’ racist activities, which were excluded from the original application, detract from the home’s value as a resource worthy of Raleigh Historic Landmark designation,” the commission members wrote.

They agreed with Murray that the home would not likely be designated a landmark today.

“The decision to de-designate the home does not erase the history of Daniels’ life and legacy,” they wrote. “It makes his legacy more accurate.”

The application to de-list the home acknowledged that the Masonic Lodge of Raleigh had been trying to sell the property for years, and noted that the historic designation and the association with Daniels made that very difficult.

Still, the decision to sell was wrenching, said Lloyd Johnson, president of the Raleigh Masonic Temple Corp., comprised of members of the three local lodges — Hiram 40, Raleigh 500 and William G. Hill 218 — that shared the building. Johnson said it had fallen into disrepair, to the point that the lodges no longer felt it safe to rent the building to outside groups.

“We tried for quite a while to try to find a solution to allow us to stay,” he said, “but it was just too little too late.”

A Masonic home for 71 years

The Masons bought Wakestone in 1950, as World War II veterans swelled the ranks of the lodges, which outgrew their former home on Fayetteville Street. By the late 1950s, the Masons had built a 22,000-square-foot wing onto the back, with a commercial kitchen, a large dining room and an auditorium that seats more than 200.

But by about 1980, membership in the Masons had begun to decline. Not only did the lodges not need that much space, it fell to a shrinking number of men to maintain it, said Jonathan Underwood, secretary and historian with the Grand Lodge of North Carolina.

“Everything was totally out of scale, with that site, that house, that auditorium built on it, that it very much became a source of frustration within a generation after it was built,” Underwood said.

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.”

Daniels family laments narrow focus on racism

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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