Some headstones at the Oberlin Cemetery are faded by time, the words worn to a few blurred letters; others are grand and well-preserved marble monuments, simple field stones or wooden markers.
Surrounding this nearly 3-acre site are signs of modern Raleigh – five-story condominium buildings, cleared lots poised for new growth, large modern homes built on the footprints of the modest ones that once dominated the area off Oberlin Road in West Raleigh.
The cemetery and a few nearby buildings are all that remain of what used to be the bustling African-American community called Oberlin Village, founded in the late 1800s by freed slaves and their families.
Sabrina Goode’s great-great-grandfather helped establish the village and donated land for one of its two still-thriving churches. Now Goode, an interior designer, is fighting to preserve what’s left of the village’s history, both by preserving its vestiges and raising awareness of its significance through tireless advocacy.
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The nonprofit she heads, Friends of Oberlin Village, has gotten increased attention since its 2011 founding, including recognition from then-first lady Michelle Obama and national recognition as a Preserve America Steward. A January UNC-TV documentary showcased the area’s history, and several universities are partnering with the friends to do research at the site.
Ruth Little, a local historian, helped the area earn recognition as a Raleigh Historic Landmark in 2013.
She says that Goode’s connection to the community and commitment to preserving it has helped her spread the Oberlin story widely and well over the past five years – a time when the friends group “literally dragged the cemetery and Oberlin Village into the consciousnesses of the people of Raleigh.”
“She’s telling the facts, but she’s also projecting the passion,” Little says of Goode. “When people see her and hear her, they understand through her just what the village meant to Raleigh then and means to Raleigh now.”
Both of Goode’s parents grew up in Oberlin Village, which in the years before the public schools were integrated had its own school and university.
While Goode has deep roots in the neighborhood, she grew up moving regularly around the world because of her father’s military career.
She lived in France, Turkey and Alaska, among other locations, and says her father was adamant about showing his children the cultures of the world – living off-base in local communities and taking them to historical sites like the Parthenon.
“He was always interested in different landmarks and different cities and what makes them special,” she says. “He wanted us to see history and the value of what makes the world what it is.”
Yet Oberlin Village was always home base, where she would come to visit relatives, and where her own parents returned after her father’s retirement.
Goode went on to a career in interior design, earning her bachelor’s degree in textiles at UNC-Greensboro. She worked as a product manager for The Disney Co., ran her own interior design firm and taught interior design at Wake Technical Community College before landing at Ethan Allen.
She still works full time in addition to her role as director of the nonprofit. While she doesn’t live in Oberlin Village, much of her family does, and she still considers it home base. She formed the Friends in 2011 and started holding volunteer cleanups at the cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair, twice a year. Her father, recently deceased, for years helped to maintain the cemetery.
The Friends soon realized that few people understood why there was a cemetery tucked behind the InterAct building, so the group expanded its role to include spreading the word about the village’s history.
“This was a village of 500 people that was totally self-sufficient but is largely unheard of,” Goode says.
One of Goode’s key roles is to spread the word about the area’s history to students at the universities the Friends partner with, to civic groups such as the Kiwanis, to neighbors and churches and anyone else who will listen or help.
She’s had artists create note cards with sketches of the area, the sale of which benefits the Friends. Another made a brochure. The group has held barbecues and cleanups that attract an increasingly diverse group of volunteers.
What remains of the village is primarily the cemetery and four structures: three historic homes and a church.
“We’re trying to reach out and educate people who may never have known about the history of this place,” she says. “Our concern is that by the time we get the information out, they won’t have a visual reference anymore as to where the village was located.”
The cemetery has a historical marker and a wooden kiosk where a timeline of the area is posted. Goode hopes to put up markers and walkways.
The Friends are also forging a partnership with William Peace University, the site of a training center during Reconstruction where freed slaves learned about home ownership, literacy and other topics.
“We have made tremendous strides in some areas and I feel like we’ve been knocked back a century in others,” she says.
The group recently submitted a nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, which would give it some protections from development.
One roadblock is the city’s assertion that the group does not own the cemetery; the Friends are seeking legal help to establish ownership. At the same time, two nearby buildings built near the time of the village’s founding are in disrepair and are poised to be demolished for development.
The more she speaks out, the more connections she makes to the village, including a former Duke University professor who is researching the area and a Raleigh native who included the cemetery in his novel.
Burning Coal theater plans to do a production on site featuring characters from the village’s history. Yet she fears the recognition won’t be enough to save what’s left of the village.
“It’s gaining traction,” she says, “but it really is a race against time.”
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Sabrina Gwinnette Goode
Born: 1959, France
Career: Interior designer, Ethan Allen Global; director, Friends of Oberlin Village
Education: B.S. clothing and textiles and marketing, UNC-Greensboro