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Remembering Oberlin Village



Cameron Village is a destination shopping center located near NC State, designed as an alternative to downtown, reflecting a new national trend. However, before it was called Cameron Village, it was known as Oberlin Village—a thriving black community built from the ground up. In the early-nineteenth century the land was owned by Duncan Cameron, a statesman, Judge, and Major General with ties to UNC and St. Mary's. Cameron made his fortune investing in land and slaves. During Reconstruction, James Harris, a former slave, and future Senator, born on the Cameron plantation, purchased acreage from the Boylan and Cameron farmland. After receiving his freedom, Harris was apprenticed to a carpenter and later opened his own business in Raleigh. Harris left North Carolina prior to the Civil War and attended school at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was the first college in the world to admit women as well as men. It also was the first college that promised to educate African American men and women. After returning to North Carolina, Mr. Harris was able to assist prospective home builders in the area and served as Chairman of the National Freedmen’s Saving and Trust and Raleigh’ s Cooperative Land and Building Association. Black families purchased land along a dirt path north of Hillsborough Street for about $50.00 an acre (nearly nine times the going price for land in Wake County at the time) and began building houses. In 1866, he founded Oberlin Village as one of the first free black communities in North Carolina. It also had its own school before the City of Raleigh established a school system.

Children in front of the Oberlin School

The village grew and prospered. By the 1880s, there were 750 residents, mostly farmers, tradespeople, and skilled workers, many of whom actually built Raleigh from the ground up. They provided brick, stone, and masonry work not only for the houses and businesses along Oberlin Road but also for the State Capitol and other significant downtown buildings. The area produced many pioneering and influential African American Raleighites. James Shepherd was born and raised in Oberlin before he founded North Carolina Central University. John Baker, the first black Sheriff of Raleigh, grew up in Oberlin. Oberlin Village thrived as an independent, African American community for over 80 years. In 1949, developers J.W. York and R.A Bryan opened a new shopping center in the suburbs as an alternative to downtown, right on top of Oberlin Village, naming it Cameron Village after the original landowners. When the land was re-zoned and developed for commercial use, many of the families were given no choice but to sell their homes. By the early fifties, Oberlin Village and most of its living inhabitants were gone. Most recently, Cameron Village has been rebranded Village District, in an attempt to separate the area from its slaveholding founder. As we look back at this historical Raleigh community, we also recognize the changing landscape and demographics of South Raleigh and similar communities throughout the country. Understanding our history—both the good and the bad—is an important step to improving our future. This—and other—historical information influences our mission as we continue to establish and maintain affordable housing. Passage Home understands the importance of families getting to choose when and if they move and the importance of building diverse communities accessible to all.

 

Passage Home is Wake County’s Community Action Agency and anti-poverty organization serving families living in poverty, families at risk of falling into the vicious cycle of poverty, and veterans.

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