Raleigh, North Carolina — Filled with modern cafes, restaurants and trendy boutiques, it can be hard to imagine a time when downtown Raleigh was instead filled with vast fields, plantation homes and hundreds of people reduced to slavery.
Instead of busy roads and breweries, much of what now comprises downtown was rural – including plantations like Spring Hill, Mordecai, Lane, Devereux, Haywood, Cameron and others.
When emancipation finally came to Raleigh, hundreds of suddenly freed men and women poured in from these plantations and into the surrounding city. Most had no money, no home, no formal education. There were no churches, schools, or medical facilities to serve the once-enslaved population. How did a generation of liberated families build a life out of nothing?
“African Americans, after slavery, decided to come together and build, brick by brick, a community and a sense of belonging that allowed them to thrive,” says Grady Bussey, director of the John Chavis Center. Memorial Park.
Within a generation of freedom, Raleigh’s African-American community had built several neighborhoods known as Freedmen’s Villages. There were thriving businesses, government leaders, universities, hospitals and churches.
Juneteenth in Raleigh: the beginnings of emancipation
Imagine the first moment of freedom: what was the first thing the enslaved men and women of Raleigh did when they learned they were free?
Raleigh historians say some probably left the plantation, just because they could. Many probably celebrated, while others were in shock.
“Think of someone coming up to you and telling you that everything you’ve ever known in your life just changed,” Bussey explains. “You are a full person. You are a descendant now. You have a full name now. You have the ability and the right to do things that you didn’t have yesterday.”
Bussey asks, “How do people learn to be someone new overnight?”
He says some, who probably struggled with the sudden change, stayed on the plantations they had always known and started working as sharecroppers. Others, who had seen family members sold to distant plantations, began planning long journeys to find their lost loved ones.
Some, however, began the community work of building their new homes in freedom – establishing freedmen’s villages like the village of Oberlin and 12 other neighborhoods in the east and south parts of Raleigh. Even today, some of this historic segregation can be seen in Southeast Raleigh’s history.
Freedmen’s Villages: Building a community from the ground up
The land that now comprises the Village District (formerly Cameron Village) was once a pre-war plantation owned by Duncan Cameron. Cameron is known for having one of the largest slave operations in the state. His plantation mansion is long gone today, but a file photo gives some insight into what the area looked like.
“The plantations were self-sufficient,” Bussey said. “They had stores and cemeteries, meeting places for the church.”
When hundreds of people were suddenly free to leave Cameron’s plantation, they had to find a way to earn money and find land to settle.
The village of Oberlin was built on land subdivided by white landowners and sold to newly freed African Americans, according to research done by Ruth Little for the historical research report for the designation of the village of Oberlin.
“White merchant and entrepreneur Lewis W. Peck is the first known landowner to sell lots to African Americans,” she wrote.
The villages received several derogatory names from the surrounding public: names like “Save-Rent” or “Slab Town” to invoke a sense of “cheapness”. Eventually, however, the community would take on the name of Oberlin Village.
James Harris is often associated with the name Oberlin. One of Wake County’s leading black politicians, he was born in Granville County while still a slave. He won his freedom and traveled to Ohio, where he studied at Oberlin College, then moved on to help people escape slavery. Oberlin College was an abolitionist college that not only accepted black students, but allowed them to come to campus and enroll.
For a community of newly freed slaves, the name Oberlin would have represented the freedom to gain an education and build one’s own life – to be uplifted.
“During the 1870s, the pioneers of Oberlin established essential institutions for an independent community – two churches, a cemetery, and a school,” Little wrote.
Many inhabitants of the village of Oberlin over the generations have become leaders in the community. James Shepard, for example, founded the college that would become North Carolina Central University. Joe Holt was the first black student to challenge school segregation in Raleigh after Brown vs. the Board of Education.
Just down the street, the students themselves have built a hospital for the African American community. Stone by stone, these young people dug rocks from the ground itself and built St. Agnes, a hospital for Raleigh’s African-American community.
Linda Dallas, a professor at St. Augustine University, calls the hospital “a symbol of coming out of nowhere.”
Bussey points out that the idea of building churches, homes and hospitals from scratch may seem unbelievable by today’s standards – but, he says, “These people had no other choice. They had to work together and make something out of nothing. That’s part of the resilience of the African-American experience.”
Juneteenth in Raleigh: Then vs. Now
Emancipation was just the beginning. Jim Crow laws, red line practices, and segregation continued to push against the African American community. Of Raleigh’s original 13 freedmen’s villages, only two remain today: Oberlin and Method. The rest have been wiped off the map.
Despite its growth and success, even the historic village of Oberlin has suffered a lot of loss. From the late 1940s through the 1960s, the development of “Cameron Village” and Wade Avenue drove out families and impacted quality of life “in the name of urban renewal,” according to Little’s research. Similar communities, such as Hayti in Durham, which became so successful it became known as “Black Wall Street”, found themselves disappearing under new developments and freeways.
Since those early days of emancipation, the celebration of Juneteenth has faded into history for much of the United States. In 2021, Congress passed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making it a federal holiday. This year there are dozens of June 19 events, tours, commemorations and exhibits across the Triangle, working to highlight the stories of the many unnamed men and women who have spent their lives in slavery – but built much of Raleigh’s foundation.
WRAL News has worked to compile a list of Juneteenth events in the Triangle. This year, thousands of people across the Triangle are expected to celebrate, commemorate and learn about history.
“The American experience is extraordinary. It’s royal. It’s unique. And the African-American experience is intertwined with the American experience,” Bussey says. “It’s worth learning everything the dynamic that accompanies the American experience.”