This Federal-style home, completed in 1815, is all that remains of Rosedale Plantation, which kept about 24 slaves at its peak around 1840. Researchers have used historic documents to draw out glimpses of life there for slave owners as well as for slaves. (Photo: Glenn H. Burkins for Qcitymetro.com)
The word seemed to stick in Laura Borell’s throat. The s-word, the one that’s so hard to avoid on a visit to Historic Rosedale.
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Less than 150 years ago – just two lifetimes for someone age 75 – this unlikely patch of land on north Tryon Street was a working slave plantation — or better yet, a plantation worked by “enslaved people,” as Borell so delicately put it.
A native of Canada, Borell is a graduate student at Winthrop University, where she is studying to be a mental health counselor. She spent this summer as a tour guide at Rosedale. But try as she might, while guiding a tour, she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “slave.”
“To me, it’s just doesn’t sound right,” she later explained.
Besides, she added, the guidebook instructs tour guides to tread cautiously on topics that might offend visitors.
“If I were African American, it would be a difficult thing for me to discuss,” said Borell, who is white.
To understand the story of Rosedale, one must return to the 1790s, when a man named Archibald Frew arrived in the frontier town of Charlotte with his sister, Sarah. Frew prospered at first and developed a 911-acre plantation. He completed a Federal-style home there in 1815 – the “big house,” some might call it.
The plantation eventually fell into the hands of Dr. David Caldwell, who lived there with his wife, Harriet, and their eight children. At its peak, census records suggest, the plantation housed about 24 salves, the most valuable of whom worked as highly skilled blacksmiths.
While a patient could hire Dr. Caldwell as a personal physician for $10 a year, some of his most skilled slaves brought in $15 a month, according to Rosedale records.
Some who visit the plantation or work there say the place is inhabited still by the spirits of former slaves. One such slave was called Cherry, a woman who was summoned from another plantation to care for the Caldwell children when Harriet Caldwell died in 1845.
A Caldwell family diary tells of a female slave who “had her own room outfitted for a lady and was very lady-like in appearance,” says Beth Harris, Rosedale’s curator of education. Some speculate that that woman was Cherry.
“That seems to make sense for someone you would entrust the care of your children to,” Harris said.
Harris laughs when talk turns to the possibility that Cherry’s spirit may still reside at Rosedale.
“They brought in an intuitive, and she sensed Cherry,” Harris said. “Different people sense different names. A lady was here recently and sensed the name of Hanna or Anna. Two people – one was a visitor and one was a staff member – have actually seen the apparition of a black man. We don’t know who that was.”
In the big house stands a wall containing pictures of various members of the Caldwell clan. One face – George Caldwell – stands out. He was a man of obvious mixed-race parentage who worked as a blacksmith.
Some of George Caldwell’s African American descendants long insisted that he was the son of Dr. David Caldwell and lived in the big house with other members of the Caldwell family. But because no documentation has been found to support that theory, Rosedale officials are cautious when discussing who he was or how he may have been treated.
“He’s a mystery we continue to research,” Harris said.
Documents do suggest that George Caldwell was born in 1843 or 1844. The 1930 census listed him as being nearly 90. No burial records were found.
Rosedale officials say they would like to see more local African Americans visiting the site. Borell, the Winthrop student, said she tries to tailor her tours to suit the interests of the various groups she escorts.
“Every tour we do is a little different,” she said. “Some people in the tour are interested in the architecture. Some people are interested in the family. Some people are interested in the enslaved.”
Borell said she has found that African Americans who take the tour really do want to know about the slaves. Harris agrees, but said getting blacks to visit – especially younger black people – is not always easy.
“It’s hard to talk about slavery,” she said. “People think it’s going to be like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ that we are going to promote the old South. But African Americans who do come love our tour and they find it very interesting, particularly that we do have so many records pertaining to the slaves.”
GETTING THERE: From the uptown Transit Center, take Bus 11. After reaching Tryon Street, your trip will be a straight shot. Get off on Guy E Suddreth Avenue. Historic Rosedale will be immediately across N. Tryon Street. The trip will take about 16 minutes and 21 stops.