A nonprofit group that has spent years trying to clean up Oberlin Cemetery and draw attention to its historical significance now finds a legal question hovering like a specter over the place where the remains of hundreds of former residents of Oberlin Village have been buried since the 1800s.
Who owns the place where these old bones lie?
The question came up after the Friends of Oberlin, a grassroots group organized by current Oberlin Village residents and descendants of the original founders of the freedmen’s community, took up the long-neglected work of trying to maintain the cemetery. In its research, the Friends group discovered that a narrow driveway that was guaranteed to provide access to the cemetery from Oberlin Road has been paved over by a neighboring landowner. The owners of the cemetery could sue to get the strip of land back, but according to title research done for the city of Raleigh, the nearly 3-acre cemetery – worth almost $2.7 million – has no owners.
“From a legal standpoint, there is no entity that legally owns the property right now,” said Louis Buonpane, chief of staff in the Raleigh city manager’s office, paraphrasing a report a title-search company produced at the city’s request.
“That’s one of the main challenges of these old, historic cemeteries: trying to determine ownership,” said Thomas Walker, a former U.S. attorney who is now in private practice and has taken an interest in Oberlin Cemetery, near his home off Oberlin Road.
Since forming in 2011, Friends of Oberlin have held fundraisers and clean-up days – volunteers will be out with rakes and hedge clippers again from 9 a.m. to noon on Oct. 15 – and compiled a set of goals for the property. Those include getting it listed on the National Register of Historic Places and getting a historical marker to install along Oberlin Road; filling in collapsed graves and establishing walking paths for visitors; and using the cemetery to tell the story of Oberlin Village before all other remnants of the once-thriving African-American community have disappeared.
The village was settled on the outskirts of Raleigh in 1866 by James Henry Harris, who had been educated at Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first U.S. colleges to accept black students. Harris became chairman of the National Freemen’s Savings and Trust Co. and the Raleigh Cooperative Land and Building Association, the latter of which loaned money for residents to buy land and build houses in the village. By 1880, there were about 750 residents, many of them former slaves or the children of former slaves. Some of their stories were later collected and published by the federal Works Progress Administration.
Oberlin was one of several African-American communities settled around Raleigh after the Civil War and later annexed by the city. In 1949, Cameron Village shopping center went up on land adjacent to Oberlin, bringing traffic and development pressure to the neighborhood. Roads built to accommodate the traffic split the neighborhood and forced the demolition of some of its original homes.
Written records are scarce, but oral tradition passed down through Oberlin residents indicated the cemetery preceded the development of the village, most likely as a burial place for slaves who served on nearby Cameron and Mordecai family lands. County real estate records show a deed for the cemetery was issued in 1873.
Historical documents show the cemetery was set up with a governing board of five trustees and several alternates. There is no indication the trustees had any personal ownership in the land.
Once those trustees died, it appears the cemetery board went dormant.
Sabrina Goode, whose grandparents were early settlers in the village, said her father tried at times to maintain the cemetery. In the 1990s, a group of Daniels Middle School students took it on as a class project.
Goode helped found the Friends of Oberlin largely to look after the cemetery, which she assumed belonged to the community.
Change all around
The cemetery, which is tax-exempt, occupies what would otherwise be a prime bit of real estate. It sits off Oberlin Road behind the old YWCA building now occupied by the agency InterAct, in an area that has been heavily redeveloped in the past decade. Older buildings have been torn down and replaced by big new houses, apartments, and office and retail space. According to Goode, only five early Oberlin Village homes remain.
InterAct has allowed visitors to use its back parking lot to reach the cemetery, which is fenced on its three other sides. While Goode says there is no reason to fear InterAct will ever deny access, “There has been talk of someone buying InterAct’s building and putting a high-rise there. Who’s to say the next owner would let people use their property to get to the cemetery?”
It might be possible to sue the neighboring landowner who paved over the access road, but Buonpane says the city’s research indicates that the Friends of Oberlin – because it doesn’t own the cemetery – has no legal ground to bring such a suit.
Neither does anyone else, according to the city’s research.
“They recommended we hire an attorney,” Goode said, to find out how to establish ownership of the property. “But we don’t have money to pay an attorney.”
In the meantime, the group’s work has renewed interest in the site, this time from teachers and students at N.C. State University, Wake Technical Community College and Peace University. This year, John Wall, a Ph.D. student in NCSU’s Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, worked with other students on a thorough survey of the cemetery. Without disturbing what was there, they walked through to observe and record surface features and artifacts, including grave markers, depressions in the ground, even glass bottles. They used terrestrial laser scanning to get a high-resolution model of the terrain, which helps to identify unmarked, sunken graves, and ground-penetrating radar to find other unmarked graves.
Their research, released late last month, identified 625 graves in Oberlin Cemetery, dating from 1853 to 2007.
John Millhauser and Dru McGill, who teach anthropology and sociology at NCSU, helped direct Wall’s work and said the potential for additional research at the cemetery is exciting. Last spring, McGill sent students in his material culture class to the cemetery, where they studied symbols on tombstones and objects embedded in them.
“The goal is to bring back to the present the lives of these early Oberlin residents, how this part of the city has evolved, and to shine a light on our own ways of life,” McGill said.
Millhauser imagines state museums and archaeologists conducting research at the cemetery. Recently a local theater group expressed interest in doing a performance based on it.
“There is still so much more to be revealed,” Millhauser said.