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Oberlin Village: A community built by people freed from slavery in Raleigh

Posted June 17, 2020 4:08 p.m. EDT
Updated June 17, 2020 7:21 p.m. EDT

— When many Triangle residents think of the name 'Oberlin,' they think of a street that runs through Raleigh's Cameron Village.

People may be surprised to discover that the name Oberlin 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.

Oberlin Rising is a monument to the people of 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.

Cheryl Williams, who works on the Education Committee for Friends of Oberlin Village, said, "Today you can't tell that there was a vibrant middle or upper class black community on Oberlin Road."

However, 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.

Origins of Historic Oberlin Village

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 blacks, not just to audit classes, but to matriculate.

For a community of newly-freed slaves, the name Oberlin would have represented the freedom to gain education and build a life of their own – to be uplifted.

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 known white supremacist – changed its name to Oberlin Middle School this week.

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 country."

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 blacks and whites 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.

Oberlin Rising is a monument to the people of Oberlin Village.

Joseph Holt, Jr.: First effort to integrate a Raleigh school

In 1956, after Brown vs. the Board of Education had legalized desegregation, Joseph Holt Jr. was denied access to Broughton High School. It was the first attempt to de-segregate a white school in Raleigh.

"His parents went all the way to the highest court," said Williams.

Mr. and Mrs. Holt were not successful.

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.

Oberlin Rising is a monument to the people of Oberlin Village.

Wilson W. Morgan: One of the first black men to serve in the House of Representatives

Wilson Morgan was a freed slave who was one of the first black men to serve in the House of Representatives. He's the great, great-grandfather of Sabrina Goode, who has worked to preserve Historic Oberlin through Friends of Oberlin Village.

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 Latta House, the last remaining building of Latta University, burned down in 2007. However, visitors can still visit the site of the house at Latta Park, which still serves the Oberlin Village community today.

Preservation NC works on preserving a historic Oberlin home.

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.

"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 Ruth Little in her Raleigh Historic Landmark Designation Application for Oberlin Village.

According to Little, only a handful of structures were designated as historic landmarks:

  • 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.

She said the fact that the Wake County School Board was willing to change the name of the middle school from Daniels to Oberlin is very significant.

"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

Friends of Oberlin Village, where Williams serves, educates the community about the history of Historic Oberlin Village, doing presentations in classrooms or by Zoom, as well as providing tours.

They also work to preserve the history of Historic Oberlin Village and Historic Oberlin Cemetery, hosting clean-ups to keep the cemetery clean.

Friends of Oberlin Village worked to create a documentary on Historic Oberlin Village, which can seen here.

Volunteers are welcome to contact Friends of Oberlin Village through their website if they'd like to get involved. There's need for researchers, grant writers, marketing experts, presenters and clean-up crews.

Schools and organizations may contact Friends of Oberlin Village if they would like to set up a historic presentation.

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