A Walk Through Oberlin Cemetery

Reed Winter, a Raleigh native, shares her experience in discovering the forgotten past of Oberlin Cemetery.

A couple of years ago I was working in a spa on Oberlin Road. At some point during my time as an employee, I remember learning that there was a tiny cemetery hidden behind Interact, a women’s thrift store next door to the spa, which piqued my interest. I became absolutely determined to find it. I knew nothing about this plot of land, other than it was now an unused burial place that was most likely in danger of destruction disguised as “modernization”. This area of Old Raleigh is known for luxury apartments, boutique shopping, and redevelopment. I wanted to see this little, forgotten cemetery with my own two eyes.

On my lunch break one day, I packed my journal in my backpack and cut through the overgrown parking lot adjacent to and slightly behind Oberlin Court apartments. At the rear of the lot, enveloped in low hanging trees, stood an unassuming wooden archway. I walked through it.

It felt like the entire city around me had vanished. I heard no cars winding down Oberlin Road, no twenty-somethings in the apartments next door socializing in their rooftop pool, no skateboards carving their way around the back stairs. Only the whisper of the wind in the trees. Everything beyond the boundary perimeter of leaning, wrought-iron fence sounded muffled and far away.

Photo by Reed Winter

I moved through the cemetery in silence. I was the only one there. It felt like decades had passed since the last visitor. Here, a gravestone bearing an elaborate epitaph mourning a woman who passed too quickly, too young. There, a simple, unadorned granite column, alone in the grass.

Even further, nothing more than an ominous rectangle of sunken earth. Of those, there were hundreds. No marker, no tombstone, just depressions covered in grass and flowers shaded by magnolia leaves. They were everywhere. 

I noticed a peculiar feeling of being passively observed by eyes I could not see. 

Of the visible and intact stones and markers, I guessed that 98% of them were more than one hundred years old. I remember kneeling in front of one, awestruck, and running my fingers across an inscription from the 1800's. Time had worn away the name. 

Photo by Reed Winter

My lunch hour was winding to a close, and I reluctantly began making my way back toward the entrance. After gingerly avoiding toppled headstones that were scattered across the footpaths, I turned to look behind me one last time and admired the sunlight rippling across the silent, watchful clover.

Upon returning to the outer world, I immediately began researching this cemetery. How could something so old, so obviously important to the people whose loved ones laid there, be so forgotten? Left so alone? 

With wide and ignorant eyes, I learned how Oberlin Cemetery is but one facet of the jewel that, 150 years ago, was Oberlin Village. One of the largest freed-slave communities in the South-East, if not the country, it was named by the formerly enslaved James Harris who purchased the land and started the village. Liberated African-Americans and their families lived, worked, built, prospered, worshiped, loved, and died along this road. Colleges were erected, homesteads were enjoyed, and residents cared for the land (and each other) within the shade of Raleigh's oak trees. Together, they molded their own thriving culture from the dirt and clay we work and shop on today. 

History did not treat the village kindly. In 1949, frustrated by the crowding downtown, two developers decided Raleigh needed a suburb-friendly shopping center. Land was purchased and zones were secured. Families were relocated, pushed out of their homes to the outskirts of Raleigh proper, and comfortably forgotten. An astounding percentage of those homes were demolished. Finally, the Oberlin Village namesake, a testament to black prosperity, was buried beneath the rubble. The new shopping center was named not for the remaining community rightfully and legally living there, but for the Camerons. The original (slave holding) owners of the land. Cameron (not Oberlin) Village Shopping Center was born.

I remain outraged to this day that I spent my entire childhood in Raleigh public schools and was taught nothing of this monumental neighborhood that was a haven and sanctuary for so many. After sharing my story on Facebook, I quickly realized that I was not alone in having this confounding realization.  

Today, there is no current “official” owner of Oberlin Cemetery. A grassroots organization known as Friends of Oberlin Village cares for the area as best as they can, but donations for routine upkeep are both necessary and an unsurprisingly low priority to Raleigh residents.

With enough funding, The Friends could continue ensuring the survival of this landmark. This could also provide further opportunities for preservation, like thermal scans of the cemetery. These scans allow for an accurate count of all grave-sites (the true number of loved ones buried there is unknown, and many graves are rumored to pre-date the Civil War) and would begin the process of properly identifying and commemorating those who rest there. 

The shadow of gentrification creeps further and further toward the boundary of Oberlin Village Cemetery every day. If we do not actively contribute to preserving this extraordinarily important cultural site, it can and will be lost forever.


Learn more about Friends of Oberlin Village.

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