Tucked away behind the InterAct shelter and an apartment complex, Oberlin Cemetery is one of the least-known burial sites in Raleigh. It’s not maintained by the city, and many of its graves aren’t even marked.
But Oberlin is one of Raleigh’s oldest black cemeteries, dating to the 1870s. And it’s among the last reminders of an earlier age in this section of town – long before Cameron Village shopping center brought major development to Oberlin Road.
Before Cameron Village, the area was known as Oberlin Village: Wake County’s largest settlement of free blacks after the Civil War. A businessman sold plots of land to former slaves, and before long the area had its own school and businesses.
Few of those homes remain today, with most bulldozed decades ago to make way for new shops and neighborhoods. Former residents of Oberlin Village and others in the modern neighborhood want to see the cemetery – and the history it represents – recognized. Last week, they made their case to the Raleigh City Council to add Oberlin Cemetery to the list of Raleigh Historic Landmarks.
“A Raleigh Landmark designation is a big honor, and it sort of puts a (place) on everybody’s radar as being important,” said Ruth Little, a historian who lives nearby and researched the site for the landmark application.
Joseph Holt grew up just a few steps from the cemetery. It’s where he lived when he was among the first black students to integrate the Raleigh school system. At the time, he had plenty of support from neighbors. “I became very familiar that I was surrounded by educators and persons of accomplishment,” he said.
Holt said values such as hard work and education were passed down from the first settlers of Oberlin Village. “Oberlin is a special community that emerged after the Civil War,” he said. “There were people in that community who had to make a way out of no way.”
That community began to disperse around 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,” Little wrote in her report. “The construction of the Wade Avenue four-lane boulevard about 1965 destroyed a number of community houses.”
Today, only four houses and two churches remain from the Oberlin Village period – along with the cemetery that holds 600 of the old community’s residents. The cemetery isn’t as well-kept as Raleigh’s other historic black cemetery, City Cemetery. The Southeast Raleigh site is owned by the city, while Oberlin Cemetery’s deed specifies community ownership. Legal protections won’t allow any development on the site, but the lack of an owner leaves upkeep to the occasional group of volunteers. The only access is through the InterAct property, and some of the graves are deteriorating.
“If everyone owns it, it becomes problematic in who’s going to take care of it,” Little said. “It’s a strange limbo.”
The Raleigh City Council is expected to vote on the historic designation Feb. 19. Neighbors and former residents hope the city will eventually put a sign on Oberlin Road noting the cemetery’s history.
“We have quite a legacy over there,” Holt said.