Oberlin Village: A community built by people freed from slavery in Raleigh
When many locals think of the name 'Oberlin,' they connect it with a street that runs through Cameron Village. But the name Oberlin has a far deeper history--dating all the way back to the 1700s. It represents the idea of uplifting the oppressed.Posted — Updated
Many people were surprised to learn earlier this week that the land where both the former 'Cameron Village' and Oberlin Village now sit was once part of a plantation – and that the name Cameron referred to the man Duncan Cameron, who held one of the largest slave-holdings in the state.
The name 'Oberlin' also has a far deeper history – dating all the way back to the 1700s. The name Oberlin has been applied to multiple roads and schools throughout the city's history, but it has always represented one core idea: Uplifting the oppressed.
Men and women freed from the Cameron Plantation help form Oberlin Village
In Raleigh, the name Oberlin originated from a freedman's village, built by freed men and woman, including families who had been released from the nearby Cameron Plantation, which encompassed modern locations such as Cameron Village shopping center and the Cameron Park neighborhood.
During the 1800s, a large portion of the land that comprises modern day downtown Raleigh was plantations. Cameron's plantation held hundreds of enslaved men and women on his large swath of property near Hillsborough Street – one of the largest 'slave-holdings' in the state.
Prior to Jim Crow, Oberlin Village flourished – and many Black leaders from Oberlin made enormous historic contributions to the state and the country as a whole.
Oberlin Village, decimated by development, loses much of its history
When Oberlin Village was annexed by the city of Raleigh, half of the historic community was destroyed – bulldozed and developed over after the extension of Wade Avenue cut the community in half.
"The school closed about 1922, when the property was sold to Parker-Hunter Realty Company and subdivided into house lots for white buyers," wrote Little in her report.
Throughout losing much of their history, however, Oberlin Village retained its name.
In the late 1940s, the construction of a new shopping center revived the name Cameron. For the people of Oberlin Village, some of whom could recall relatives who had been enslaved on the Cameron Plantation, the newly revived name was doubtlessly yet another jab in a string of events that sought to erase Oberlin's history.
And it worked. Oberlin's history was largely forgotten by much of Raleigh.
"By 1960 the encroachment of Raleigh and the rezoning of land along Oberlin Road for commercial usage began to erode the village’s identity as an independent African American community," wrote Little.
Origins of the 'Oberlin' name
Historic Oberlin Village was named by James E. Harris, who had been been freed from slavery.
He named the village after Oberlin College in Ohio, an abolitionist college that accepted Black students, not just to audit classes, but to matriculate.
However, the name Oberlin goes back even farther.
"It was traceable to a man named Jean Fredrick Oberlin, a minister who lived in France during the 1700s. He was a superintendent of orphanages, who devoted his life to the uplift of the oppressed," said Williams.
His effort inspired the people who founded an abolitionist center in Ohio from which was born Oberlin College.
Daniels Middle School – named after a man who helped incite a massacre of between 60 to 300 members of Wilmington's Black community – changed its name to Oberlin Middle School.
Williams said, "Oberlin Middle School's name change really recognizes long overdue contribution that the people who lived here, worked here, worshiped here – the contribution that they made to the history of North Carolina – and America."
People from Oberlin Village who shaped North Carolina and America
James Harris: Entrepreneur and political activist who named Oberlin Village
James Harris named Oberlin Village, but he did far more than that in his lifetime.
"He offered a constitution in Raleigh for the Freedman’s Convention held in October 1866," said Williams. "They laid out their resolutions, and there was a lot of hope because finally we were free, we were going to be able to enjoy all of the privileges of the constitution."
According to Williams, Harris was born in Granville County. After being freed from slavery, he started a business in Raleigh at age 19.
"He attended school at Oberlin College in Ohio," said Williams. "But he traveled to several countries."
Harris was commissioned by local governments to serve communities. He became the Vice President of the National Black Convention in 1877 and returned to Raleigh as a teacher for New England Freedman’s Aid Society.
"His major interests were an end to legal discrimination and for prison reform," said Williams. "We are still fighting for that."
He also fought for protection for women.
Throughout his career, Williams said, he believed members of all races had to work together, and that their interests were intertwined.
James Shepard: Founder of the school that would become North Carolina Central University
James Shepard attended Shaw University. "He graduated as a pharmacist. At one point he was one of the richest people in America," said Williams.
Shepard founded the college which would become North Carolina Central University, a historically black college that continues to educate students and serve the community.
Joseph Holt, Jr.: First effort to integrate a Raleigh school
"His parents went all the way to the highest court," said Williams.
However, their work paved the way for William Campbell to become the first Black student to attend Raleigh's all-white Murphey Elementary School, officially integrating the city's public school system in September of 1960.
"However, their work also paved the way for several children to go to Daniels in September of 1961," said Williams.
Rebecca Bryant, Gloria Hunter, Arnell Jones, Larry Manuel and Ann Morgan became the first Black students to attend Daniels.
It also paved the way for the three students who integrated Broughton: Myrtle Capehart, Dorthy Howard and Cynthia Williams.
"So the activism that Mr. and Mrs. Holt did paved the way for these kids to finally be able to integrate schools," said Williams.
Wilson W. Morgan: One of the first black men to serve in the House of Representatives
Morgan also helped develop Oberlin Village, donating a parcel of land that became Wilson Temple United Methodist Church, one of the village's surviving historic landmarks.
Reverend Morgan L. Latta: Founder of Latta University
Reverend Morgan L. Latta founded Latta University in 1892, providing industrial and vocational educational, a night school and an orphanage.
With the abolition of slavery, thousands of newly freed people found themselves in need of education, jobs and homes. Latta University offered night classes, allowing students the option to work during the day while still getting an education.
The Erosion of Oberlin Village
These are just a few of the people who, after being freed from slavery, went on to make a lasting historic impact on Raleigh and the entire country.
When Oberlin Village was annexed into Raleigh and the land was re-zoned and developed for commercial use, the historic community began to struggle.
- The Hall House
- The Turner House
- The Morgan House
- The Graves House
- Wilson Temple United Methodist
- Latta University Historic Park
"Before Jim Crow, we could participate in the legislature. We were free to participate fully in all endeavors. Black businesses were established up and down Hargett Street in Raleigh," said Williams.
"I really hope they'll be many more acts like this. I hope that these acts will reform the policies and the attitudes and the ways that we look at each other – and to open up our eyes and hearts to the gifts that each of us bring to the world."
So the next time you drive down Oberlin Road, take a moment to remember the gifts that each of these people, freed from slavery, gave to the world; and continue to contribute today.
That's the message behind the name Oberlin--it's all about uplifting each other, and recognizing and honoring the contributions made.
Get involved with Friends of Oberlin Village
They also work to preserve the history of Historic Oberlin Village and Historic Oberlin Cemetery, hosting clean-ups to keep the cemetery clean.
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