A Death in Oberlin Village

A Passing in Oberlin Village

By Art Menius, December 17, 2011

Original publication on artmenius.com

Last month a 106 year old resident of my home town, Raleigh, NC, passed away. I never knew the late centurion, Clara Shepard (http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/12/12/1705522/an-aunt-to-all-in-historic-district.html), but I certainly knew Oberlin Village, where she was known as Aunt Clara. Aunt Clara was the oldest native of it, Raleigh’s first free African-American neighborhood begun a year after Sherman’s troops liberated the state capitol in April 1865.

The land had belonged to Duncan Cameron, perhaps the state’s largest slaveholder. James Harris, who had been born his property, but found his way to Ohio where he matriculated at Oberlin College, purchased the 149 acres west of 1866 vintage Raleigh and named it for his alma mater. (http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/commentary/228/entry) Oberlin Village thrived with a few of its finest houses still surviving. The plot, a half mile east of where NC State University began a score later, contained farmland, homes, churches, and businesses. Yet white Raleighites continued to haul the carcasses of deceased livestock to the eastern edge of Oberlin Village for the vultures to consume.

State College (as NCSU was known until 1964) drew Raleigh closer to Oberlin Village, as did Oberlin Road, which became a primary connector of west Raleigh to north Raleigh. The growth of Raleigh in those directions exploded after World War II with the impact hitting Oberlin Village in 1948 and 1949 when almost all the property east of Oberlin Road became part of a 158 acre mixed commercial and residential development called Cameron Village (note the choice in namesake) that was the largest shopping center between Washington and Atlanta. https://artmenius.com/articles-1995-and-earlier/cameron-village/ Ms. Shephard would work in a clothing store there for at least a couple of decades.

This paved the way for further commercial development along Oberlin Road by 1980. Ironically, this included a restaurant called the Confederate House located on land that once belonged to a newly freed person, where in 1963 at the height of “Blowin’ in the Wind” popularity, I saw Peter, Paul, and Mary eating dinner. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t4g_1VoGw4

By that time, Oberlin Village faced even more direct threats from so-called Urban Renewal and the flamboyant road building that so often accompanied it. Wade Avenue, a four lane urban boulevard would slice through the northern edge of the track, connecting western Raleigh and the anticipated I-40 to downtown. Around the same town, federal Urban Renewal signs appeared in the field along Oberlin Road where TV evangelist Oral Roberts held his rowdy tent revivals before becoming a university president. I asked my parents what Urban Renewal meant.

And that moment a switch flipped in my ten-year-old mind. Why, I inquired, would someone want their house torn down so that they had to move into apartments called public housing. My mother said they did not choose; it was decided by city government to give them better lives. I was a little kid, but that did not square with any naïve concept of America that I held.

I was already enchanted by history. I had wondered how people could recover so quickly from the experience of slavery to build something for themselves, a functional community of their own devising, in Oberlin Village. Now I had to wonder why the white men who ran our government wanted to wipe that all out.

The urban renewal project in Oberlin Village turned out to be relatively limited compared to the invasion-like obliteration of Hayti, the thriving “Wall Street of Black America” in nearby Durham. http://www.ibiblio.org/hayti/background.html A seed had been planted in my mind, however, three years before the Chicago Democratic Convention, before the nightly pounding of lies about Vietnam had taken its effect, before I had the context to process the history I was witnessing.

Years later I could frame the first almost a century of Oberlin Village as a shining example of the power of community self-determination and economic empowerment and compare that to the loss of control of their own community in the 1960s. Greenwich Village had the power to stop Robert Moses in Manhattan. African-American communities in Raleigh and Durham could not resist Moses’ imitators so effectively.

I still appreciate the lessons that taught me. And that’s why I mark the passing of Aunt Clara Shephard.

For a video tour of an historic cemetery in Oberlin Village see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32bxRv75AHk. See also http://goodnightraleigh.com/2008/07/forgotten-oberlin-village-cemetery/

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