Oberlin’s Persistence

From the start, it was clear the Holt family wasn’t going to be predictable. On Christmas Eve, Joseph Holt Sr. and Elwyna Grant Haywood eloped and were married by civil-rights activist and Episcopalian reverend George Fisher in the rectory of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church.

“Now, neither of them were Episcopalian,” Joseph Holt Jr. explained. “But it was right up the street from where my mama lived. She snuck out of the house, and St. Ambrose was just up the street.”

The couple, who would go on to endure a brutal, years-long period of retaliation over their efforts to integrate Daniels Middle School, were just one of many exemplary Black families from Oberlin —a town of 1,000 perched a few miles northwest of downtown Raleigh.

“I would read stories and literature about villages—smoke twirling from chimneys, aroma of burning leaves in the fall,” said Holt Jr. The vision of an idyllic American village, like the canvas of a Thomas Kinkade painting, was mirrored in the community he saw around him. “[I] began to really become attached to it in a way, my whole village.”

The story of Oberlin and its residents is both historic and modern, a story of success and destruction, rebirth and persistence. You can’t understand Raleigh’s history or the state’s history without understanding what in 1948 the News & Observer—far from a bastion of Black empowerment—called “the premier African American suburb of Raleigh.”

That premier suburb took shape with the help of a freedman from Granville County named James Henry Harris. Born around 1830, Harris used earnings from his work as an upholsterer’s apprentice in Warrenton to buy his freedom and move to Raleigh, only to flee the city’s racial oppression to study at Oberlin College in Ohio. Afterward, he helped enslaved fugitives escape to Canada, and traveled to Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Eventually he made his way once again to Raleigh—this time after the fall of the Confederacy—where he settled and became a teacher with the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society. Elected a city alderman, and later to the North Carolina House of Representatives and the North Carolina Senate, Harris founded the Raleigh Cooperative Land and Building Association, one of the many lending and development companies that sprang up after the Civil War and were among the first cooperative mortgage companies in North Carolina. The Raleigh CLBA operated for 10 years and was a reliable source of loans to Black families for purchasing land and building homes.

Historian Ruth Little called Harris “Wake County’s most prominent 19th-century African American leader.” Residents of the town agreed, and renamed their village Oberlin, the allusion likely in Harris’ honor.

Those who grew up in Oberlin remember it for its joy.

“I remember playing with the boys of the Shepard family,” Holt Jr. recalled. “We would go into the wooded areas around Oberlin and play cowboys and bandits.”

The Oberlin School, serving elementary and middle school students, was a place of pride for the entire community, educating elementary and middle school kids. Many of Raleigh’s Black teachers came from Oberlin, including Holt Jr.’s mother, Elwyna.

“I went to Oberlin School, and it had such a profound impact on me,” said Thomas Roy Marshall III, a childhood friend and neighbor of Holt Jr. “When I wrote my thesis on barriers that impact successful relationships between African American children and their fathers, I found myself paying tribute to [my teachers], as to the foundational influence they had on me. Now I really look back on those times and realize that Oberlin was such a special place to grow up as a kid, even though you knew at that time white folks were the enemy.”

It was impossible to avoid the horrors of the Jim Crow South, even within the idyllic enclave of Oberlin. Grown Black men were harassed to tears by white riders on the city buses, and white youth drove down Oberlin Road on Halloween shooting off their guns. The older an Oberlin child became, the more precarious they understood their situation to be.

The Holt family had soon had enough of the restrictions. Encouraged by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, they applied for Holt Jr. to attend Josephus Daniels Middle School in the summer of 1956.

The backlash was swift and violent. That November, the Raleigh Times printed a story about the ongoing battle and included the family’s picture and home address. Holt Jr.’s parents received calls from white supremacists threatening to abduct Holt Jr. and murder his family. Eventually, haunted by the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi just two years prior, Holt Sr. sent his son away to spend the summer of 1957 with his grandparents.

Joseph Holt Sr. was fired from his job as a driver for a prominent family in the neighboring whites-only suburb of Boylan Heights. His wife Elwyna had her teaching position threatened and her wages garnished by the county. Neighbors distanced themselves from the family to avoid sharing in the retaliation.

“It was three and a half years of hell,” Holt Jr. said in Exhausted Remedies: The Joe Holt Story, a 1995 documentary made by his daughter, Deborah Holt Noel, who is now a host on PBS North Carolina. The family’s case stretched on for so long that by the time the North Carolina Supreme Court had reached its decision to dismiss the case, Holt had already graduated from Ligon High School.

The Holt family’s fight, however, paved the way for the official integration of Raleigh Public school with the attendance of 7-year-old Billy Campbell in the fall of 1960. “There’s always a spearhead in every endeavor,” Marshall remarked when reflecting on his friend’s grueling journey. “Joseph Holt was a spearhead for integration in Raleigh.”

From Woods to Walls

As the Holt family and others worked to transform the segregated world around them, other forces were beginning to transform their own world in Oberlin.

In 1948, Annie Smallwood, the daughter of Margaret Cameron, whose family’s “assets” once counted more than 30,000 acres and nearly 1,000 enslaved Black people, would sell the forested land where Holt Jr. and his friends had played cowboys.

Two prominent men in Raleigh, James Wesley York and Raymond Bryan, bought the 158-acre parcel, in hopes of fulfilling a vision York had first had two years prior. While traveling in Chicago, he had read newspaper accounts of shopping centers, still a novel idea at that time. These sprawling structures for work, shopping, and entertainment only existed in large cities, but York saw the possibility of creating such a place in Raleigh—and doing it in an area that, at the time, was overlooked and dismissed by many white families.

The next year, Cameron Village opened—named in honor of Smallwood’s ancestors—and became North Carolina’s largest development and first mixed-use development. While the massive project would be completed in part thanks to the skill and talent of Oberlin residents in the employ of York Construction, those same families knew they would not be a welcome presence once the project was complete.

“With Cameron Village, there was some economic benefit,” recalled Cheryl Crooms-Williams, a longtime resident of Oberlin Village. “But even if you did, you know, muster up the armor to go into these places, you weren't welcome.”

Crooms-Williams, whose great-great-great-grandfather was owned by Duncan Cameron at the Stagville Plantation, remembers stories from her grandmother about neighbors being forced to pick up their ice-cream orders at the back door so as not to cross paths with white patrons. Marshall remembers the separate drinking fountains for “coloreds” and whites just inside the downstairs entrance of the Sears Roebuck that anchored the development. The contrast was clear: a wooded play space was now segregated by walls of brick and mortar.

In the wake of Cameron Village, and just one year before the Holt family began its fight for integration, another major change began—this one more immediately destructive to Oberlin. Spurred by Raleigh’s sharp jump in size and population, and by the traffic drawn by Cameron Village’s status as the place to be, the city began a massive expansion of Wade Avenue.

Over the next four years, the reconfiguration of Wade Avenue—including the construction of an overpass—destroyed the home of Marshall and nearly a dozen other Oberlin homes in and around the 1100 block of Oberlin Road. The city’s use of eminent domain split the neighborhood in two; the white suburbs on either side of Oberlin remained mostly unchanged. In the documentary Oberlin: A Village Rooted in Freedom, produced by Preservation NC, residents described Wade Avenue as “cutting through the heart of the neighborhood.”

For many young Oberlin residents, the destruction of their community and the racism that still raged around them pushed them to a breaking point. In many cases, residents who could not afford to go straight to college after high school enlisted in the military as a means of escape.

“There was no opportunity for us in Raleigh, besides service jobs like pearl diving,” explained Marshall, using a local euphemism for working as a dishwasher—one of the only jobs Black people were allowed to have at the city’s segregated restaurants.

As those who left began to return in the 1970s, they found the neighborhood was not what it used to be. The city had closed and demolished the Oberlin School in 1966, an event many residents described as devastating. Job and wage growth for Black residents didn’t keep pace with the increasing property taxes in downtown Raleigh, leaving many unable to afford to keep the homes they had inherited.

Efforts to revitalize the community faced headwinds. After 30 years in the United States Air Force, Robert Goode moved his family back to the community that his ancestors had helped settle.

“In the late 1970s, my father and other residents started the Oberlin Neighborhood Association,” his daughter, Sabrina Goode, explained. “I remember him coming home, being so mad because they would try to get a community watch open and different things, and the city wasn't supportive. They were always trying to say that Oberlin is a drug-infested neighborhood that’s downtrodden, that it’s crime-ridden, and it wasn’t true.”

“[If] there are descendants of grandparents who passed without a will, the laws in this state [can] say there’s six owners, eight owners, their cousins,” said Susan Adley Warrick, a current resident of Oberlin and member of the nearby Quaker church, Friends Meeting of Raleigh. “One or two of them may want to sell their share to somebody in the real-estate industry, and the buyer of those two shares can force the other ones to sell, often below market rate.”

It can take years for a developer to gain ownership of enough properties to have land sufficient for a desired project, which can result in properties sitting vacant and communities appearing depressed.

Goode maintains that this was a tactic to depress the value of the land and help move Black families out of the area. “And it’s like so many other things: you fight and fight for so long, you just get exhausted, and you kind of give up and you move out and you move on.”

Oberlin Rising

In 2010, Sabrina Goode, now a prominent interior designer in Raleigh, received a phone call from a co-worker living in the nearby University Park neighborhood.

“She said, ‘Guess what my husband just found? A cemetery!’” Goode recalled with a chuckle. “I told her that her husband hadn’t discovered anything!”

The “discovery” was Oberlin Cemetery, now barely visible from Oberlin Road due to new construction. The two women scheduled a cleanup and invited their friends to join the effort.

It was a kudzu jungle, and that was the only layer visible to the naked eye. “We found mattresses where some homeless people had bunkered down,” Goode said. “We found bowls of cat and dog food where somebody was feeding strays. There was a little bit of everything there.”

After Goode and her friends called it a day, it looked as if they had hardly done a thing.

“After about two or three cleanups—and my co-workers’ prodding—we realized that [our cleaning efforts] had to be sustained in order to keep the cemetery on the path to returning to its health,” she said. “And we decided to form a group.”

The next year, Goode and her friend Donna Bailey established the nonprofit Friends of Oberlin Village. They began with the cemetery and created ambitious plans to make the neighborhood shine once again.

In the years since, Goode—with the help of some unexpected supporters—has secured city and national historic registrations for Oberlin Cemetery, as well as a Historic Overlay District designation for the neighborhood’s original structures.

Seeing their work, Smedes York, the former Raleigh mayor and son of Cameron Village developer J.W. York, reached out to Holt Jr. to introduce himself and discuss ways to honor the community that had defined much of Holt’s childhood.

York’s company had offices with expansive frontage on the 800 block of Oberlin Road. “I thought that was the perfect spot for a sculpture,” he recalled.

He reached out to acclaimed public artist and Raleigh resident Thomas Sayre, who had created two other larger-than-life masterpieces in the city—Exploris Museum’s “World Wall” and the Raleigh Convention Center’s “Shimmer Wall.” What started as conversations between York, Sayre, Holt, and other Oberlin residents became “Oberlin Rising.”

In an interview with Liza Roberts for Walter Magazine, Sayre reflected on what was being asked of him as an artist by the residents of Oberlin: “They want to be marked, and they want to count and they want to be seen. And who doesn’t?”

The series of five weathered but staunch earth-cast pillars measures 22 feet high, each with a slight arch that bends toward the Oberlin Cemetery. Native plants surround benches, which sit in front of a low brick wall etched with the names of celebrated Oberlin residents—names such as Willis Graves Jr., a renowned lawyer who worked with Thurgood Marshall on the victorious case against racialized exclusionary neighborhood covenants, and Dr. James E. Shepard, co-founder of Mechanics and Farmers Bank and founder and president of North Carolina Central University.

“Oberlin Village did not have just one exemplary member,” Crooms-Williams explained. “There were many, many remarkable Black people who came out of this community. That’s just one reason why it is so special and must be preserved and remembered.”

Myrick Howard of Preservation NC also became involved in the effort to save Oberlin’s historic structures. In 2016, Howard noticed that two late 19th-century homes—the Graves-Fields house and the Rev. Plummer T. Hall House—were languishing among the modern apartment buildings that surrounded them on Oberlin Road.

In an almost acrobatic series of moves, Preservation NC acquired both homes with the blessing of each of the families, then physically moved the two houses, situating them beside each other and connecting them with a basement tunnel. Restored to their original beauty, they now serve as the headquarters for the organization.

In the last eight months, prompted by the murder of George Floyd and the protests for Black lives that swept the globe afterward, Raleigh has been seeing Oberlin with newfound respect. On June 16, 2020, the Wake County Board of Education renamed Josephus Daniels Middle School, changing it to Oberlin Middle School. And last month, the owners of Cameron Village renamed the development the “Village District,” shedding the name that had hung over Oberlin Village for more than 70 years.

“The original center was literally built by the hands of Oberlin laborers, so the name has always been an insensitive reminder of an enslaved past,” said Goode in an official statement from the Friends of Oberlin Village. “We are comforted to think the resting founders of Oberlin and their descendants have a sense of dignity restored.”