Preservation NC Fall Symposium
Thursday, Nov. 7–Friday Nov. 8
Shaw University, 118 E. South St., Raleigh
State prisoners began building the Executive Mansion in 1883. Eight years later, Governor Daniel Fowle moved in (and died shortly thereafter). Since then, the building has not only housed thirty governors and countless events and meetings, but it’s also served as an architectural anchor of Blount Street, a foremost exemplar of a Queen Anne Victorian mansion that earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Around the same time a few miles away, a former slave named Willis Graves built his own two-story Victorian home with an ornate Queen Anne exterior in Oberlin Village, a bustling freedman’s community of about one thousand residents who were once enslaved by Raleigh’s most prominent families. Graves painted his home in the same color scheme as the Executive Mansion: three shades of green—dark, medium, and a yellow wash, with black window sashes.
That home is still standing, and it, too, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Three years ago, officials from the nonprofit Preservation NC, the city of Raleigh, and a private developer began efforts to save what’s now called the Graves-Fields home and another historic structure, the residence of the Reverend Plummer T. Hall—the first minister of the First Baptist Church of Oberlin—from the wrecking ball. And those two buildings, constructed a generation after slavery ended, now share a legacy in the modern era.
The Graves-Fields house was moved about fifty yards from where it once stood on Oberlin Road—a street now lined with office buildings and condos—to a lot adjacent to the Hall house, with which it now shares a basement and a water and sewage system.
This month, those houses will become Preservation NC’s new headquarters.
To mark the occasion, the nonprofit, founded in 1939, is hosting a two-day symposium at Shaw University starting on Thursday, which will include lectures, panel discussions, a documentary about the preservation of the homes, and a reading of a play by Durham’s Howard Craft about the life of Willis Graves Jr., who became a civil rights attorney in Detroit and was involved in a landmark case that led the Supreme Court to rule that racially restrictive housing covenants are unconstitutional. The symposium also features a walking tour of the Prince Hall District—Raleigh’s first African American mixed-used neighborhood, with a commercial district that sprang up during segregation, along with turn-of-the-century homes in a community anchored by Shaw, the historically black college that attracted newly freed slaves during Reconstruction.
The elder Graves was born around 1856, and by 1883, he’d worked as a brick mason and a justice of the peace. He ran for state House of Representatives in 1898—the year of the Wilmington race massacre, which led to the legal disenfranchisement of the state’s African Americans for nearly seventy years.
His house was purchased by Spurgeon Fields in 1945. Fields had worked at The News & Observer for four decades and was a loyal companion to publisher Josephus Daniels. Ironically, Daniels was a virulent white supremacist and a mastermind of the Wilmington massacre.
Graves used the framing of an older home, built before the Civil War, to construct his house’s second story. Preservation NC officials say they had to separate the two structures before moving the house to the vacate lot they’d purchased next to the Hall house.
“It was much more complicated than if it had been built at one time,” says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation NC.
The team also discovered that Graves built the house with whatever he could get his hands on. The wainscoting is different from one room to the next. The baseboards don’t match, either. Neither do the doors.
“When we started getting into the walls, we learned really fast, the house did not remotely meet code,” Howard says.
There were other modern challenges, owing to Graves’s determination to build his family a home by any means necessary. The joists used to frame the floors were undersized, and Preservation NC workers had to nail in more wood to give the floor support.
“If someone were walking in the attic of the house, you could feel it if you were standing on the first floor,” Howard says. “It’s clear that they built the house with whatever they could get their hands on, and I admire them all the more for it. The house lasted for a century—and more.”
Howard says that even though the tower of the Graves-Fields house is “completely out of level” and “noticeably not squared, that’s part of the story.”
While the Hall house was better framed, he adds, termites ravaged the floors.
Reverend Hall reportedly purchased the house as a wedding present for his bride, Delia Mallory, when they married in 1877. Deed records indicate that the land the home sat on was a gift from the bride’s father, according to Preservation NC.
When it was first built, the Hall residence was only six hundred square feet, and the ceiling was less than eight feet tall. Hall’s parishioners built a pastor’s study on the right side of the house, facing the street. A porch and gazebo were eventually built on the left side to balance the home.
“From the street, it looks like a pretty prosperous house,” Howard says. “The Graves-Fields house, too. It looks like a big house, and it’s not. The rooms are not particularly big. The ceilings are not particularly high. And if two people are passing each other in the hallway, it’s pretty tight. This was all about speaking to the street, saying, ‘We have arrived. We are making it.’ When you consider that Hall and Graves were both born into slavery, these two houses are really amazing.”
To that end, both homes were built in what Howard calls “high Victorian style,” with “highly ornamented” Queen Anne exteriors—spindle friezes just below the porch entrances, balustrades around the porches. The Graves-Fields also has what are called Chicago windows—square colored glass going up and down the sash with a clear glass center.
And Graves painted the name “OAKCREST” on the colored glass panes above his front door.
“It’s interesting,” Howard says. “Graves named his house. It’s as if he was thinking, ‘Well, if the plantation owner can name his house, by George, I can name my house.’ He literally had it painted onto the glass.”
The Hall house, like its counterpart, features a new paint job with original colors that were stylish in its day. It’s brown, with red window sashes and green highlights. It had been painted olive green in the 1990s, while the Graves-Fields home had been covered with white aluminum siding in the 1960s.
Howard says that when he first saw homes’ original colors, he thought, “This is going to be dismal—brown, red, with the green. But they really worked nicely.”
In addition to showcasing Preservation NC’s new headquarters, the symposium will also contemplate the achievements of Oberlin Village, a historic, albeit fast-disappearing, African American neighborhood first established around 1870.
“Oberlin was a proud community,” Howard says. “People know Princeville,” he added, referring to the flood-prone Edgecombe County hamlet that was arguably the nation’s first incorporated all-black town. “Oberlin was Raleigh’s Princeville. … It was a freestanding community outside of Raleigh. It was its own town, with churches, stores, and schools. There are not many more of these freedman’s villages out there.”
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at email@example.com.
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