RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Freedom is what Mattie Curtis, a Raleigh slave, wanted.
On a warm Summer day in 2018 at the Mordecai Historic Home, her family reflected on how Curtis’ dreams set forth their vision, more than 100 years later.
Born on an Orange County plantation, Curtis was later sold to the Mordecai Plantation, but she died with her own 40 acres and a mule.
“I can remember a black carriage,” recalled Betty Zimmerman. “I can remember a carriage. I can remember horses.”
Zimmerman told CBS 17’s Beairshelle Edmé that she has flashbacks of her great grandmother.
Over the summer at a family reunion, Zimmerman and nearly 100 others stood on the hallowed grounds for the first time.
“I went though the kitchen and it’s hot, it’s stuffy, and my great, great grandmother was a cook in that kitchen and she went through a lot– it was tough. It’s hell,” Paul Zimmerman said! “It’s hell– that’s hell’s kitchen!”
Pope grew up wondering about his roots. The 69-year-old did that even when playing outside of the United Methodist Church.
“I’d see this house and say, ‘Wow, I wonder what went on there?'” he said.
That house across from his childhood church was the Mordecai Plantation.
“I didn’t realize I had any history across the street,” he said.
It was his own hidden history in plain sight for decades.
At that plantation, his great, great grandmother would have scrubbed potatoes and shucked corn for the Mordecai family dinner. Meanwhile, she and other slaves would never eat such delicacies, unsure if they would even have dinner.
On the same grounds, she also heard the wails of mothers whose children were being sold right from under them.
“I can imagine that her day started with a struggle,” Patricia Morgan-Glover said. “My great-grandmother went through a lot… it’s hard for me to talk about it. I’m very emotional. I’m trying not to be, but the struggles. It’s just heartbreaking for me.”
Morgan-Glover’s great-grandmother eventually gained freedom, and before she died, the 98-year-old told her story in her own words.
“I doan know how come hit, but jist ‘fore de end of de war we come ter Moses Mordicia’s place, right up de hill from here. He wus mean too, he’d get drunk an’ whup ni**ers all day off’ an’ on,” said Mattie Curtis in an interview now preserved in the Library of Congress. “Freedom ain’t give us notin’ but pickled hoss meat an’ dirty crackers, an’ not half enough of dat.”
“Her business– she was a farmer,” said Douglas Porter, a historian with the Raleigh’s Mordecai Historic Home. “The land she purchased was on the northwestern tip of the former Mordecai Plantation lands.”
Generations later, now it’s her great-grandchildren, and their children, and their children who see beyond the shackles that forced Mattie Curtis into North Carolina.
They are slave descendants with a new sense of what it means to be free.
You can listen to a reenactment of Mattie Curtis’ interview about her time as a slave, thanks to the City of Raleigh Historic Resources and Museum Program – Mordecai Historic Park.
CBS 17’s Beairshelle Edmé researched and found Mordecai descendants living in Raleigh. As part of this report, she asked several questions of Sam Mordecai.
In a statement, he said,
“…being connected closely to slavery, as a descendent of slaves or slave owners, is a tortuous combination of pain and pride…my ancestors benefited from the labor and suffering of slaves like mattie curtis, and we all know now, that that was not right.”
CBS 17 asked Sam Mordecai a series of questions, to which he did respond. Among them, Edmé asked whether the Mordecai family has played a role in the African-American community since the family enslaved black people more than a century ago.
“Growing up and/or living in Raleigh is participating in the black community. We live here together, black and white, and have for a long time,” Sam Mordecai answered. “One of my roles as a member of the Historical Resources Museum Advisory Board (HRMAB) was to help organize and promote an event at the site of the old Latta University in Oberlin Village in October 2018. I also volunteered to be a representative from HRMAB assisting in developing a master plan for the Latta site. I do this out of respect for Reverend Latta and his many great accomplishments, for the freed slaves, and to be a good steward of Raleigh history.”
Asked about how the Mordecai family responds to the Curtis family’s initial feelings when learning of their ancestor, Mordecai said, “If you have researched slavery, none of this is surprising. This is an emotional topic for my family as well. Being connected closely to slavery, as a descendant of slaves or slave owners, is a tortuous combination of pain and pride.”
He later added when discussing slavery’s impact on his family & its legacy,
“The Mordecai family is proud of the old slaves, and we empathize with their descendant’s pain. Being a descendant of slave owners involves its own unique form of pain. We also have pride in our ancestors. If others cannot understand our pride and pain, that’s okay. Maybe someday we will get there.”
In the last several decades these conversations surrounding slavery have evolved, particularly throughout the Southeast. That dialogue has often included formal apologies to descendants of slaves.
Asked if the Mordecai family acknowledged and/or apologized for its role in slavery in North Carolina, Mordecai elaborated with this statement.
“There are large slave owners in several branches of our family tree, so not acknowledging that our ancestors played a role in slavery in this state would be delusional. We are not delusional,” Mordecai said. “As far as apologizing for my ancestor’s role in slavery, I will say that I am sorry that slavery ever happened. My ancestors benefited from the labor and suffering of slaves like Mattie Curtis, and we all know now, that that was not right.”
“However, I do not feel it is my place or my right to apologize for the actions of people I never met who have been dead for 125-200 years, family or not. As we all will, they had to answer for their lives and choices to a power much higher than any of us. I am sure there were meaningful apologies passed between the old Mordecai’s and their slaves in the hereafter.”
Sam Mordecai said he has reached out to a Curtis family member to further the conversation about their shared history.