Preservation NC Turned Two Queen Anne Homes Built by Former Slaves Into Its New Headquarters
State prisoners began building the Executive Mansion in 1883. Eight years later, Governor Daniel Fowle moved in (and died shortly thereafter). Since then, the building has not only housed thirty governors and countless events and meetings, but it’s also served as an architectural anchor of Blount Street, a foremost exemplar of a Queen Anne Victorian mansion that earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Around the same time a few miles away, a former slave named Willis Graves built his own two-story Victorian home with an ornate Queen Anne exterior in Oberlin Village, a bustling freedman’s community of about one thousand residents who were once enslaved by Raleigh’s most prominent families. Graves painted his home in the same color scheme as the Executive Mansion: three shades of green—dark, medium, and a yellow wash, with black window sashes.
That home is still standing, and it, too, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Three years ago, officials from the nonprofit Preservation NC, the city of Raleigh, and a private developer began efforts to save what’s now called the Graves-Fields home and another historic structure, the residence of the Reverend Plummer T. Hall—the first minister of the First Baptist Church of Oberlin—from the wrecking ball. And those two buildings, constructed a generation after slavery ended, now share a legacy in the modern era.
The Graves-Fields house was moved about fifty yards from where it once stood on Oberlin Road—a street now lined with office buildings and condos—to a lot adjacent to the Hall house, with which it now shares a basement and a water and sewage system.
This month, those houses will become Preservation NC’s new headquarters.
To mark the occasion, the nonprofit, founded in 1939, is hosting a two-day symposium at Shaw University starting on Thursday, which will include lectures, panel discussions, a documentary about the preservation of the homes, and a reading of a play by Durham’s Howard Craft about the life of Willis Graves Jr., who became a civil rights attorney in Detroit and was involved in a landmark case that led the Supreme Court to rule that racially restrictive housing covenants are unconstitutional. The symposium also features a walking tour of the Prince Hall District—Raleigh’s first African American mixed-used neighborhood, with a commercial district that sprang up during segregation, along with turn-of-the-century homes in a community anchored by Shaw, the historically black college that attracted newly freed slaves during Reconstruction.
The elder Graves was born around 1856, and by 1883, he’d worked as a brick mason and a justice of the peace. He ran for state House of Representatives in 1898—the year of the Wilmington race massacre, which led to the legal disenfranchisement of the state’s African Americans for nearly seventy years.
His house was purchased by Spurgeon Fields in 1945. Fields had worked at The News & Observer for four decades and was a loyal companion to publisher Josephus Daniels. Ironically, Daniels was a virulent white supremacist and a mastermind of the Wilmington massacre.
Graves used the framing of an older home, built before the Civil War, to construct his house’s second story. Preservation NC officials say they had to separate the two structures before moving the house to the vacate lot they’d purchased next to the Hall house.
“It was much more complicated than if it had been built at one time,” says Myrick Howard, president of Preservation NC.
(Indy Week, 11/5/19)