Midtown Raleigh News

A walk through local history

From the state Capitol grounds, head east for eight blocks until you reach the leafy corner of Edenton Street and Tarboro Road.

Nestled behind the trees is O’Rourke Cemetery, situated on land donated in the mid-1800s by John O’Rourke, a prominent Raleigh Catholic who lived nearby.

The story of this little-known landmark is getting a fresh retelling as part of a walking tour championed by a group of neighborhood leaders.

The tour follows a 1.5-mile route along Edenton Street and New Bern Avenue, using granite markers and highway signs to teach visitors about the city’s early development.

Advocates hope the tour will not only bring attention to noteworthy names and places but also instill a sense of identity in the racially and economically diverse neighborhoods just east of downtown.

“As we grow, we don’t want the history of the African-American achievements to get lost,” said City Councilman Eugene Weeks, who represents the area. “You can lose the big picture. We need something to remind citizens.”

The tour spans the newly created New Bern Avenue-Edenton Street Cultural District, a designation given by the city to recognize the contributions of the area. Visitors can stop at 16 points of interest, from churches and cemeteries to schools, universities and former ball fields.

“People cannot imagine the richness and the history in that corridor,” said Octavia Rainey, chairwoman of the North Central CAC and a lead advocate for creating the tour.

Many of the landmarks were demolished or redeveloped long ago, said Brad Thompson, a former City Council member who lives in Robert’s Park off New Bern Avenue. “This history was not necessarily valued,” he said.

Nearby, the new South Park-East Raleigh Cultural District includes the South Park and East Raleigh neighborhoods, Moore Square, Shaw University, Chavis Park and businesses on Wilmington and Hargett streets.

The two districts are the first of their kind in Raleigh. The city plans to work with the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau and Raleigh City Museum to promote the areas to visitors interested in history tours.

Rediscovering history

This is not an entirely new idea.

In 1991, the city placed markers along the sidewalk as part of a streetscape plan for the New Bern Avenue-Edenton Street corridor.

Over time, weeds grew up. When Raleigh officials began a new round of talks to renovate New Bern Avenue, neighbors in the North Central CAC pointed to the neglected markers as a wise way to start.

“You didn’t even know they were there,” Rainey said. “That was so sad, to have all that history, and people were walking over them.”

As the city targets the area for reinvestment, neighbors worry that gentrification will force them out.

Longtime residents, mostly African-American and some low- income and elderly, now live next to young professionals, mostly white, lured by the appeal of urban living.

The city offers a series of housing loan programs with low interest or deferred payments. But the properties must be offered to buyers regardless of race.

“It is a real balancing act,” said Diane Beth, a public health specialist who lives in the Idlewild neighborhood with her husband, Ray. The couple bought a home in 2010.

Amid the change, the tour is a way to draw connections with the past, organizers said. An enduring landmark is St. Monica’s Catholic School, which served African-American children from the 1920s to 1960.

There’s a stop on the route of an experimental railroad that ran between Union Square and a state quarry on Rock Quarry Road.

A brochure created for the tour contains a scan code so participants can pull up information on their smart phones.

O’Rourke, who donated land for a Catholic cemetery, surely never imagined anything like this.

It was around 1858 when the carriage shop owner helped establish a resting place for, among others, the city’s paupers. Two centuries later, today’s generation has a new way to learn about his significance.