Driving down Raleigh’s Oberlin Road today, it’s hard to imagine that, sixty years ago, this was the suburbs. Dominating the area since 1949 is Cameron Village, but even that pinnacle of shopping centers has changed. Gone are the underground clubs of the seventies and eighties. Gone are the Smurf-blue awnings of the nineties, when you could park for free and walk to campus.
When the city is for sale, property isn’t the only thing that changes. History, culture, and people change, and sometimes they are irretrievably lost. When Ten Thousand Villages recently closed after twenty years in Cameron Village and relocated to Cary, it got me thinking about another, much older village: Oberlin Village, one of the original thirteen freed African-American communities in North Carolina, which has all but disappeared.
One of its vestiges, hidden from view and accessible only from the back of the InterAct parking lot, is Oberlin Cemetery, one of several historic African-American cemeteries in the area. Mostly without headstones or makers, these depressions in the earth represent the forgotten people of a forgotten place.
The land Cameron Village sits upon was owned, in the early-nineteenth century, by Duncan Cameron, a statesman, judge, and major general with ties to UNC and St. Mary’s. Cameron made his fortune investing in propertyboth land and slaves. There are the expected records of abuses, casual racism, and threats to runaways, but that history is complicated. The family that made so much of its fortune in the slave trade were also educators, supporters, and allies of African-Americans.
The Cameron family moved slaves accused of crimes north to prevent their executions. Cameron letters frequently related news of the “negro family” alongside news of their own, and former slaves kept in touch with the them after emancipation (literacy was common among Cameron slaves). After the Civil War, the Camerons gave land along Oberlin Road to their former slaves, as both owners and tenants.
During Reconstruction, James Harris, former slave and future senator (1872), purchased acreage from the Boylan and Cameron farmland. In 1866, he founded Oberlin Village as one of the first free black communities in North Carolina. Harris was the president of the Raleigh Cooperative Land and Building Association, which developed Oberlin Village into individual plots. Residents purchased these tracts with income earned as cobblers, masons, blacksmiths, soldiers, farm workers, laundresses, nurses, and teachers.
The area produced many pioneering and influential African-American Raleighites. James Shepherd was born and raised in Oberlin before he founded North Carolina Central University. John Baker, the first black sheriff of Raleigh, grew up in Oberlin. Joseph Holt Jr. was one of the first to challenge school segregation in Raleigh in 1956, twenty years before Raleigh schools were fully integrated with the merger of the mostly white Wake County and the mostly black Raleigh City school systems. Reverend Morgan Latta founded Latta University, a school and orphanage for freed slave children, on the same land where he was once a slave.
The Victorian houses that remain today along Oberlin Road, Clark Avenue, and Wade Avenue are a testament to the remarkable prosperity the Oberlin Village families created within a single generation of slavery. And they might have continued to flourish, if it hadn’t been for a curious thing that is almost repeating itself today: nobody wanted to pay to park downtown.
With the economic growth and stability Americans felt after World War II, shopping on Fayetteville Street Mall was getting crowded and costly. In 1949, developers J.W. York and R.A Bryan opened a new shopping center in the suburbs as an alternative to downtown, right on top of Oberlin Village, naming it Cameron Village after the original landowners. By the early fifties, Oberlin Village and most of its living inhabitants were gone. Of course, we know what impact this decentralization had on downtown for decades thereafter.
In the sixties and seventies, shopping areas and housing extended again, this time into North Hills and Crabtree. In the early aughts, government-subsidized housing in Mordecai and Oakwood was torn down, with many residents relocated to North Raleigh, to make way for yet another shopping center. Just last year, the condos at 401 Oberlin Road were sold for $65 million by Taft (who bought the original building from the same York family that still manages Cameron Village) with no attention paid to the traffic it created, much less to the historical significance of the area.
Today, the gentrification of downtown Raleigh is moving so quickly we’re paying for parking againand pricing and pushing out historic African-American communities. We can’t, and shouldn’t, stop development. But instead of construction, what if we looked to the past, and Reconstructionthe idea that we can preserve and strengthen our communities through sustainable building, corporate and government responsibility, and public-private partnerships? Could we start with investing some of that new municipal parking revenue in Oberlin Cemetery or the historic downtown?
Legally, no one owns Oberlin Cemetery. It’s cared for by the grassroots nonprofit Friends of Oberlin Village. The cemetery formally started in 1873, and 145 burial sites are known, but it’s believed that its origins predate Reconstruction, with as many as six hundred people, including antebellum slaves, buried there. The next step is to raise funds for a thermal scan to determine the burial locations for preservation. Whether or not Oberlin Cemetery disappears is up to us, just as what happens to all of Raleigh is up to us.
This article appeared in print with the headline “A Grave Undertaking”