July 28, 2020

Honoring African American History at Oberlin Village

This piece was orginally posted on Preservation Leadership Forum. This version has additional contributons by Nicholas Som.

The community of Historic Oberlin Village in Raleigh, North Carolina has a story to tell: one of accomplishment, pride, and overcoming incredible obstacles. Founded by African American freedmen around 1870, they created an independent town that consisted of twelve blocks with almost 1,000 residents who were carpenters, brick masons, and seamstresses once enslaved by some of Raleigh’s most prominent families. Due to the effects of the Great Depression, urban renewal, and now development and gentrification, Oberlin Village is disappearing. Out of several hundred structures, fewer than 90 remain. “These homes are highly visible and symbolic,” said Myrick Howard, president of Preservation North Carolina (PNC). “Hardly a day goes by where you are not losing another one or another one.”

The Graves-Fields and Hall Houses.

photo by: Preservation North Carolina, CCCC J. Lamb

The Graves-Fields House, "one of the most exuberant houses in Oberlin" according to Susan Mask, the great-granddaughter of house builder Willis Graves. Its vibrant green paint was selected by Graves to match the Executive Building Mansion in downtown Raleigh. During the Fields family's tenure in the mid-20th century, its wraparound porch frequently hosted animated debates about politics.

Over the past 35 years, PNC has moved its headquarters offices four times in order to save highly endangered landmarks in Raleigh. PNC saw an opportunity to not only tell the community’s story, but to engage with and invest in it by moving their headquarters to two Oberlin Village houses prominently located on one of Raleigh’s busiest streets .

The houses—the Rev. Plummer T. Hall House (built in 1877) and the Graves-Fields House (built in 1885)—are two of only five Oberlin structures listed in the National Register. Threatened by development, both houses had to be relocated, and so PNC purchased them from the Raleigh Historic Development Commission. Sitting too close to the road, the Hall House had to be moved back on its lot, and the Graves-Fields House was moved about 200 feet from the opposite side of Oberlin Baptist Church, which they would like to include in programming related to the houses and community.

Restoring the houses and preparing for the move had its challenges and surprises. They discovered the Graves-Fields House was built in two phases, with the newer front section built on top of the earlier framing. Both parts had to be separated for the move and new front and back walls had to be constructed. They also had numerous cases where the houses were not constructed to code as they were built with whatever materials were on hand, such as porch posts, chair rails, and floor boards. “This is a project that has broken all of the rules. The many peculiarities of the original construction will now be part of the story,” said Howard. “Without the buildings, the history goes away. These buildings open doors about history that no one would know.”

“Everything that I am, and everything that I became, is because of that house and what happened in that house.... The house was opulent. There were all kinds of rugs, the best of everything, [My grandfather] wanted his kids and grandkids to have the best—to tell them, ‘this is what you should expect.”

Andria Fields, granddaughter of Spurgeon and Jeanette Fields who purchased the house in 1945.

PNC wants to honor the houses’ owners and the community by working with their Oberlin Village neighbors to tell their story through programming and collaborations. PNC would also like to create an exhibit about African American builders and architects in North Carolina, inspired by Willis Graves, who was a brick mason. “It adds a tremendous amount of pride and value when we talk about who built these buildings,” said Howard. “It brings pride and engagement where there is a connection.” A symposium was held in the Fall of 2019 at Shaw University—where all of the Graves children attended—and PNC would like to make a continuing effort to have programming dealing with race, class and gender. Local groups, such as Friends of Oberlin Village, Shaw University, Oberlin Baptist Church, and an Oberlin Village initiative group have been involved, as well as descendants of the Graves, Fields and Hall families.

The Graves, Fields, and Hall families were well-regarded members of the community, counting among them educators, ministers, civil rights attorneys, businesspersons, journalists and philanthropists. For many of the Graves family descendants, it was the first time that they had seen the house since the family left it in the 1930s when the Graves’ children migrated North .

“We’ve been powerfully moved by the discovery of our great-grandparents’ home and its relevance to the history of African Americans and to North Carolina. PNC has done an amazing job uncovering facts, deeds and documents that tell the wider story and provide a greater context,” said Susan Mask, an artist and Graves family descendant. “My family and I have enjoyed learning details about the lives our ancestors lived. There is indeed something powerful about discovering a document that reveals a powerful connection to a historical fact or figure. It’s the kind of history that helps fortify you in these fraught times. We’ve been challenged before and have risen.”

photo by: Courtesy Preservation North Carolina

The Graves Family sails overseas, 1951.

Howard sees the preservation movement as very well-placed to be supportive players in the quest for social justice and equity, and hopes that other preservation organizations will look at similar opportunities and follow PNC’s example.

“Through the buildings you can tell a lot of stories and make that happen,” Howard said. “Our work complements that and we have great opportunities to bridge that gap. There is importance in telling the stories and being stewards of those stories.”

For more information about Preservation North Carolina, please visit their website at www.presnc.org.

Lawana is the associate program officer for the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund

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