Preserving Black Culture and History, One Cemetery at a Time: Oberlin Cemetery, Raleigh NC

Photo: Irma McClaurin

How people bury their dead tells you something about who and what they valued in life. African American cemeteries are few and far between because often, after Reconstruction and during the era of Jim Crow and segregation, black property was confiscated or destroyed, and sometimes Black cemeteries were covered over to make room for highways and urban development. This makes the presence and preservation of Oberlin Cemetery in Raleigh, NC very special and very necessary.

Efforts to preserve this historic Africa American cemetery, which is one of four in the city of Raleigh, is being done by a dedicated group of descendants of the original Black freedmen founders who were the original residents of Oberlin Village, current community members, and supporters such as myself. According to a recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer by Martha Quillan, Oberlin Village was established after Reconstruction 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.” It’s existence is empirical evidence of Black people creating sustainable communities in which they founded their own schools, churches, businesses, and systematically buried their dead. What remains of the people of Oberlin Village today are two churches, several houses on the historic registry, and the Oberlin and Pine View cemeteries (the latter added through a donation of the Turner family after the original Oberlin cemetery became full). Oberlin Cemetery, founded in 1873 and active until 1971, is now on the City of Raleigh’s historic register, and the volunteer group known as the “Friends of Oberlin Village” (FOV) seek to gain national recognition, and continue to preserve both cemeteries, of which Pine View is an still active cemetery.

Today, little evidence of this early Black property ownership and community life is visible along Oberlin Road. It is now an upscale (mostly white) area that was created when a major roadway (Wade Avenue) was put in that split the community, removed Black businesses, and allowed for a building to be placed in front of the cemetery, which now sits out-of-sight and obscure. Most disturbing is that the edge of this building’s parking lot abuts the very entrance to the cemeteries, something that I doubt would ever had occurred, if it had been a white cemetery.

The FOV volunteers meet monthly at Wilson Temple, a church founded at the beginning of the original Oberlin Village; though the original church building burnt down, it is still the caretaker of the souls and spirits of original residents of Oberlin Village and their descendants. Nothing is more powerful than attending a service (led by a woman minister), and observing generations in attendance–some of them in their nineties who recall playing in Oberlin cemetery. The Friends of Oberlin Village are on a mission to preserve what little remains of Raleigh’s African American past, barely visible in the City’s everyday life. And this volunteer group should know why preserving these cemeteries is important–it is their cultural patrimony left to them by their ancestors who founded Oberlin Village.

And so, while the city of Raleigh has begun to mouth a strategic mantra that says the cemetery, now valued at $2.7M, “belongs to no one,” the Friends of Oberlin Village are clear that those who bought the original burial plots for themselves and their descendants are the true owners. The group is actively involved in attending community meetings to protest the waiving of any rules and regulations that would privilege commercialization over preservation.

The FOV is gaining in visibility and support. Most recently, anthropology faculty and students from North Carolina State have begun to document the exact number of graves using remote sensors in hopes of laying to rest one urban folk legend: that the people of Oberlin Village were deeded this particular plot of land because it was already an informal burial site for deceased slaves. Sunken graves, wooden headstones, unmarked stones as well as carved headstones and monuments are the only symbols that remain of a grave yard that catered to a community of people who ranged across a wide spectrum from poverty to wealth. And possibly, underneath this visible layer, there may yet be another story to tell of slavery.

What the current cemetery tells us is that already pieces of the current 3 acre lot may have been swallowed up–how else can one explain why the parking lot of the office building in front of the graveyard goes right up to the entrance edges of the cemeteries with no space separating the property lines. Also, older residents swear that at one point the cemetery extended beyond the iron fence that separates it from the luxury rental apartment complex and the small businesses next door. Plans show that the developers promised to build a small roadway for entrance to the cemeteries that was never fulfilled. And, full disclosure, I rented one of those apartments when I first moved to Raleigh. Little did I know, as an anthropologist, that symbols of Black history were literally a few steps away from where I lived, and that the church,Wilson Temple, across the street, has such an historic past. I also joined the FOV and created the signage that now educates visitors to Oberlin and Pine View cemeteries. It reads in part:

Thank you for visiting the historic Oberlin Village Cemetery. This 2.93-acre cemetery was officially deeded to the citizens of Oberlin Village in 1873. The adjacent Pine View cemetery was established in 1924 and is still an active burial site.

Oberlin Cemeteryis oneof only four known African American cemeteries in Raleigh. Oral tradition states that this area was the cemetery for slaves and later freedman, many of whom have made numerous contributions to this area and are an important part of Raleigh’s history.

The fight to preserve the African American past is an on going battle in America. There are dozens of films about the Holocaust. Yet, the number of documentaries and films that have been made describing not just slavery, but the lives of freedmen after Emancipation are too few and far between, or barely in existence. African American cemeteries are monuments to lives that were led, some humble, some much more illustrious. Cemeteries symbolize a “hidden transcript” of respect for the departed.

The African American past is the story of a people who were able to make a way out no way. It is a narrative of a people who literally pulled themselves up from cotton fields and rice plantation, and joined forces with already free Blacks –those fortunate enough to be born free, manumitted by their owners (who were sometimes their father), or able to purchase their own and their families’ freedom, when possible–to establish their own community based on love and respect for each other, away from immediate reach of white supremacy and disdain that characterized the South at that time. The founders of Oberlin Village created their own world–a Black world, and it must be preserved at all cost.

The National Museum of African American Museum of Culture and History is only the beginning of the work that each of us (white, Black and all Americans) must do to preserve the African American past, and tell the inclusive story of America, a nation built on the backs of slaves, its economy enhanced by the rice growing and iron technology transferred from Africa and used to transform this strange new land of the Americas, its culture embedded with the artistic, cultural and intellectual contributions of a people, of Black people, many of whom arrived as slaves, but over three centuries have demonstrated time and again an indomitable and resilient spirit able to rise above ideologies and practices of white supremacy, Jim Crow legislation, individual prejudices, and the continuing efforts (mass incarceration; economic, educational, political and health disparities) to contain and exclude us as Black Americans.

In the immortal words of the late Maya Angelou, “And still we rise.”

Originally posted on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/preserving-black-culture-history-one-cemetery-time-nc-irma-mcclaurin/

Related Videos

October 15, 2016 Clean Up of Oberlin and Pineview Cemeteries: https://youtu.be/P6sPTPBiwXY