Raleigh village built by former slaves is fast disappearing, but not these two houses

Oberlin Village, the community formed by former slaves after the Civil War that once stretched two miles along its namesake road, has been shrinking for decades, enveloped by a growing city and muscled under by office buildings, apartments and stores.

But two houses that have managed to survive are being saved and restored, thanks to Preservation North Carolina. The statewide organization that protects and celebrates old buildings is acquiring homes built by two of Oberlin Village’s most prominent families and turning them into its new headquarters.

To save the houses, Preservation North Carolina had to move them. The home built by Rev. Plummer T. Hall along an unpaved road in the 1880s was only a few feet from busy Oberlin Road and had to be pushed back from the street. The larger, two-story Graves-Fields House, built around the same time about 50 yards down the street, was bought by a developer who plans to put an office building on the site.

So Preservation North Carolina had the Graves-Fields House moved next to the Hall House, where the two historic buildings will be connected by a new basement and an outside deck. Movers rolled the Graves-Fields House through the back parking lot of Oberlin Baptist Church this week, then eased over its new foundation facing Oberlin Road.

While it is saving houses, Preservation North Carolina has also uncovered the stories of the families who lived in them. Oberlin Village was the largest of at least five communities established by African-Americans after the Civil War on what was then the outskirts of Raleigh and was named for the liberal arts college in Ohio known for its abolition work and where one of the village’s promoters, James H. Harris, was enrolled before the war. By 1880, it had grown to about 1,000 residents in 161 households.

Many of these households were headed by skilled craftsmen like brickmason Willis Graves, according to a report written by Raleigh historian M. Ruth Little. Graves and his wife Eleanor built a house on a lot he bought in 1884 and raised six children there, including three future school teachers, a carpenter, a professor of science at Florida A&M University and a prominent civil rights attorney in Detroit.

Susan Mask, a retired attorney in Seattle and Willis Graves’ great granddaughter, had never seen the home in person, though it appears in several old family photos of great aunts and cousins. Mask said the research done by Preservation North Carolina has fleshed out the family’s oral history and put distant relations back in touch with each other.

“It’s been quite a wonderful journey for us,” Mask said in a phone interview. “The house is wonderful, but I think what is really so important is hearing the stories and uncovering what this community did together.”

The Graves family lost the house in the Great Depression, and it was sold in 1945 to Jeannette and Spurgeon Fields, a driver and companion for News & Observer publisher Josephus Daniels. Their granddaughter, Andria Fields, lived with them when her father was away with the Army and recalls the Oberlin Village of the 1950s as a place where everyone knew and looked after each other.

Fields, who lives in Wake Forest, remembers her grandfather’s full and meticulous flower and vegetable gardens and large gatherings in the backyard on Labor Day, with piles of fried fish, chicken, ribs and barbecue. When she drives down Oberlin Road now she hardly recognizes it.

“It’s a good thing to see change,” she said. “But I think the house being there will allow people to see for themselves that this was once a thriving community. Yes, it’s changed, but the roots of the community are still there.”

Preservation North Carolina has revived and protected other threatened properties in Raleigh by turning them into its headquarters. Beginning in 1982, when it moved a late 19th century cottage facing demolition to North Blount Street, Preservation North Carolina has made its home in four historic buildings, most recently the Briggs Hardware Building on Fayetteville Street downtown.

Preservation North Carolina got involved with the Hall House several years ago when the city, which had acquired it through foreclosure, asked if the organization would help find a buyer, said its president, Myrick Howard. Lawyer and developer Jim Anthony then offered to donate and move the Graves-Fields House so he could build an office building, and the idea of combining the houses into a new headquarters took hold.

On the National Register

The houses are among five properties in Oberlin Village on the National Register of Historic Places, with the addition of the community’s cemetery in September. Both houses were built in the Queen Anne style popular in the late 19th century. Except for its modest size, Howard said, the Hall House “would fit just fine in Oakwood,” Raleigh’s historic neighborhood of grand Victorian homes just northeast of downtown.

Both houses tell their own stories. The Hall House now consists of just three rooms, totaling less than 600 square feet; recent additions to the rear had been eaten up by termites, Howard said. One of the original rooms was Rev. Plummer’s office, reached by a separate door off the front porch because his church, Oberlin Baptist Church, didn’t have one.

Meanwhile, the Graves-Fields House was cobbled together of different parts, perhaps acquired over time as leftovers from jobs Willis Graves worked laying brick. The wainscoting on the walls doesn’t match from room to room, and the front windows are different sizes, Howard said.

In preparing to move the house, workers found more surprises, including that the back section was actually a separate building, likely a small home like the Hall House, that had been disguised under the aluminum siding.

“It’s an odd, interesting design,” Howard said. “It wasn’t built from a plan.”

But the house also was “the largest, and one of the most exuberant, Queen Anne style dwellings in Oberlin,” according to the National Register application written in 2001. It has a large, wrap-around porch from which a tower rises at one end, and elegant touches, including stained-glass windows and a small window over the front door on which is painted the home’s name, “Oakcrest.” (with a period). Howard speculates that Willis Graves, born into in a world where the big homes and plantations owned by whites all had names, wanted his home to have one as well.

Oberlin historic district

In recent decades, the Graves-Fields home has been sandwiched between the church and the windowless brick wall of an office building from 1965. Several other homes that once lined Oberlin Road gave way to Cameron Village and other buildings that spread north toward the heart of the community.

A year ago, the city created an Oberlin historic district to help preserve what’s left. It requires extra scrutiny of rezoning requests and proposed changes to the exterior of buildings and was put in place at the request of Friends of Oberlin Village, which works to preserve and celebrate its history.

“We’ve got our finger in the dyke, so to speak,” says Sabrina Goode, the group’s executive director.

Goode remembers when the friends group got started in 2011 that its members wished they had the money to preserve the Hall and Graves-Fields houses. She called Preservation North Carolina’s efforts “monumental,” and said it’s important that some physical vestiges of Oberlin Village survive so people don’t forget this place built by African-Americans after emancipation.

“I think the community, and the city as a whole, need that visual reminder,” she said.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.