The marble stone that marks the 1924 burial place of Edward Cook is hard to read now, but Sabrina Goode pushes aside briars to expose the promise Cook’s family inscribed when they laid him in the ground.
“Gone but not forgotten.”
Goode worries the day may come when Cook’s grave – and the neglected cemetery where it lies, along with the once-thriving African-American neighborhood of which it is a relic – will be gone and forgotten.
“We’ll be talking about what was,” Goode says, “instead of what is.”
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Goode is a founding member of the Friends of Oberlin Village, a volunteer group trying to preserve and share the history of Oberlin Cemetery and what’s left of the community that surrounded it. On Saturday, the group will hold a pig-picking and concert to raise money to:
▪ Place a historical marker along Oberlin Road to mark the cemetery and Oberlin Village, a successful freedman’s settlement started at the end of the Civil War.
▪ Conduct a forensic scan of the cemetery to determine the number and placement of what may be as many as 600 graves, most of them unmarked and some of them possibly containing slave remains.
▪ Fill in collapsed graves and establish walking paths through the burial ground so visitors don’t trample the graves.
▪ Clear the cemetery of dead and downed trees and decades of underbrush growth.
▪ Get the cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
▪ Encourage the preservation of Oberlin Village’s remaining original structures as developers continue to buy empty lots or existing houses and build anew.
It’s an ambitious list, says Goode, who is descended from early Oberlin Village settlers, but then, it was an ambitious community.
In their 1993 book “Culture Town,” historians Linda Simmons-Henry and Linda Harris Edmisten write that Oberlin Village got its start as “Peck’s Place” in 1866. That’s when – two years after the end of the Civil War – James Henry Harris founded the community on a ridge a mile and a half northwest of downtown, on land once part of the Lewis Peck Farm.
Property records indicate that Peck, a wealthy white grocer, divided his farm into lots and sold them to African-Americans for about $50 an acre, nearly nine times the going price for land in Wake County at the time. Neighboring landowners later followed suit.
Harris, who was educated at Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first universities to accept black students, became chairman of the National Freemen’s Savings and Trust Co. and the Raleigh Cooperative Land and Building Association. He also served in the state House of Representatives and in the state Senate.
Villagers ‘helped build Raleigh’
It was the Raleigh Cooperative that loaned early Oberlin Village residents the money to build their houses – pioneer-style homes later replaced with popular styles such as Colonial Revival and Queen Anne. The village, which sat on the outskirts of Raleigh, ran about 12 blocks from present-day Hillsborough Street to past what is now Wade Avenue.
By 1880, it had about 750 residents, among them carpenters, brick masons and seamstresses, some of whom had been slaves for the Cameron and Mordecai families, prominent antebellum landowners.
“These were the people who helped build Raleigh,” Goode says. They provided the labor, first as slaves and then as free men and women trying to reunite and build their families. They built within their own community as well, establishing churches, a barbershop, a meat market, small grocery stores, a blacksmith shop, one of the first public schools for blacks and, in 1892, Latta University, a school and orphanage for former slaves’ children.
The first big change came to Oberlin Village when Cameron Village shopping center was built next to it in 1949, bringing traffic and new development pressure to the neighborhoods around it.
In the 1950s, the Oberlin Road overpass across Wade Avenue required the demolition of several houses and split the village in two. By the 1990s, many original Oberlin homeowners, or their children or grandchildren, had sold their property, and their homes were being torn down and replaced with much larger homes, or by offices and commercial buildings.
There still are some residents in Oberlin descended from original settlers, but they have been joined by N.C. State students in rental homes, young professionals and downsizing empty nesters.
Many of those are surprised to discover in their midst a 3-acre cemetery that may contain the remains of the people who built the houses where they now live.
Oral history holds that the site was first a burial ground for slaves from the Cameron plantation and, after Oberlin Village was settled, was made into a formal cemetery through the donation of several adjoining tracts of land.
“Because it belongs to everybody, it sort of belongs to nobody,” says Goode, whose parents grew up in Oberlin Village. Her father was one of several people who took on the task of trying to maintain the cemetery, which like many private burial grounds, has no dedicated funds.
It’s a serene, if slightly spooky, place even in midday. Completely surrounded by development, it’s fenced on three sides and can only be reached by the portion that opens onto the back parking lot of the Interact building on Oberlin Road. Mature oaks and magnolias shade most of the property. Leaves, tall grass, ivy and prickly smilax cover the ground but can be pushed back to reveal brick surrounds marking family plots. There are more than 140 grave markers, some of them just field stones, but many more interments are visible by depressions in the earth, some a foot deep.
More construction underway
The cemetery is bordered on one side by Oberlin Court apartments and an adjoining shopping center at the intersection of Oberlin Road and Wade Avenue, built in the mid-2000s after a much more imposing development was defeated by community opposition.
There is now a three-story medical office building under construction on Oberlin Road, and another developer awaits permission from the Raleigh City Council to build up to 28 condominiums on a vacant piece of land across the street, between two historic Oberlin Village houses.
The Raleigh Historic Development Commission recommended against the original proposal, which would lift density and height limitations placed on new construction within Oberlin Village in 1998. But the Raleigh Planning Commission supported it, and the RHDC worked with the developer, Capital Land Investment Co., on a plan for the condos that would include three buildings, all with entry porches or stoops facing Oberlin Road, and no parking areas between the buildings and Oberlin. The tallest portion of the buildings can be three stories, or 50 feet.
The planning board recommended approving the plan with the conditions. The City Council is set to take up the proposal again on July 7.
Martha Lauer, executive director of the Historic Development Commission and senior planner for the city, said what has been happening to Oberlin Village is the age-old story of urban development: Newcomers are drawn to a place for its charm and uniqueness, and their arrival changes the nature of the place they loved.
“We’re faced with that all over Raleigh and in all of our historic districts,” Lauer said. “The question always becomes, are the owners of all those properties interested in selling to a large developer, or are they interested in retaining their properties as single family houses that are not McMansions? Who’s to say?”
The proposed condominiums would sit on the east side of Oberlin Road, between the two-story Turner House, built in 1880 and still in the Turner family, and the Plummer T. Hall house, a Queen Anne cottage built between 1880 and 1893.
The city of Raleigh owns the Hall house. Preservation North Carolina is trying to sell the house for the city with protective covenants, and Lauer said the city plans to move the house back, to get it out of the Oberlin Road right of way. She hopes the move will happen this fall, she said.
Lauer cites studies that show people like to live in places that show change over time. Everything doesn’t have to be old single-family homes, she said, but it doesn’t all need to be new apartments either.
“If we want people to enjoy Raleigh as a distinct and special place, we need to have these pockets of who we were, that have organically developed and changed,” she said. “They add texture. They make us different from every other place in the country.”
If you go
The Friends of Oberlin Village fundraiser, featuring a pig-picking, cake walk, raffle and live bands, will be Saturday, May 23, from 5 to 8 p.m. at 1014 Oberlin Road. Parking is available in the Interact parking lot.
James Henry Harris, founder of Oberlin Village, is believed to have been born a slave in Granville County in 1832, freed in 1848, apprenticed as an upholsterer and studied two years at Oberlin College in Ohio. He arrived in Raleigh in 1865 to work with the Freedmen’s Bureau. He was twice elected to the state House and once to state Senate.
The Rev. Plummer T. Hall, a former slave, established Oberlin Baptist Church in 1880 from what had begun as a gathering of slaves in the 1870s. The church continues to worship in a building dating to 1955.
James E. Shepard, founder of N.C. Central University, grew up in Oberlin Village.
Joe Holt Jr., who grew up in Oberlin Village, launched the first legal battle to desegregate Raleigh public schools when he sued to attend Needham Broughton High School in the 1950s. The case was held up in court until after Holt graduated, and then he lost on a technicality. Joe Holt Sr. lost his job after the suit was filed, and the family became the target of bomb threats. Members of Oberlin’s Wilson Temple United Methodist Church took turns keeping watch over the family home.
John H. Baker Jr., a native of Oberlin Village, was a defensive lineman for four teams in the National Football League from 1958 to 1968. He was North Carolina’s first African-American sheriff when he was elected to serve Wake County in 1978. He held the job 24 years.