Saving Raleigh Freedmen’s homes and their stories

Historic properties tell their stories, and we are richer when we learn from them.

Preservation North Carolina has almost finished the renovation of two freedmen’s houses on Oberlin Road in Raleigh for its new headquarters. Both were nearly victims of soaring land values.

The original goal was simply saving two of the five National Register structures in Oberlin. Both had architectural appeal, and Raleigh didn’t need to lose any more historic properties of African-American heritage. So many had already been destroyed.

But these houses had rich stories to tell, and their preservation compelled us to learn more.

The Hall House was built in 1880s by Plummer and Delia Hall, both born into slavery. Hall was the founding pastor of one of the churches that merged to form Oberlin Baptist.

Also in the 1880s, Willis and Eleanor Graves built their home while they were still in their 20s. Both were born into slavery, and Graves was a brickmason. The ambitious new house must have been impressive, fashionably painted in the same colors as the brand-new Executive Mansion. The Graves even named their home Oakcrest.

The Graves were active leaders in Oberlin, as well as the larger black community of Raleigh.

Oberlin was not part of Raleigh. It was a proud freestanding, self-sufficient community of former slaves, free blacks, and their descendants, founded after the Civil War. In 1914, a New York newspaper described Oberlin as “a unique little village of nearly twelve hundred inhabitants. The neat-looking buildings are artistically painted, and the front yards are planted with rose bushes and other shrubberies.” Oberlin actually surpassed Raleigh on some measures of homeownership and education.

The Graves sent their children to college. Son Lemuel went to Cornell University, an Ivy League college, where he was the first initiate in Alpha Phi Alpha, a prominent black fraternity. He had a successful career in education and business. Lemuel’s brother, Bill, went to Howard University School of Law and became a civil rights attorney in Detroit. Bill worked with Thurgood Marshall on Shelly vs. Kramer, the landmark US Supreme Court case that invalidated racially restrictive covenants. He also assisted the world-famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, in the landmark Ossian Sweet trials.

The Graves’ daughters were each school teachers and church organists, highly respected professions for women, black or white.
Lemuel’s son, Gene, was one of the first three black journalists to travel with a US President (Truman) on an official state visit abroad. After spending twenty years in Paris working for the State Department, he was appointed by President Kennedy to run Voice of America for Latin America.

Around 1931, Lemuel moved to Harlem, taking his widowed father with him and leaving behind eleven properties in tax foreclosure. He probably figured they were worthless. Black people couldn’t get a loan, and white folks weren’t going to buy a home in a black community. In Harlem, Lemuel attended St. Philips Episcopal Church, along with many notables of the Harlem Renaissance.

The members of the Graves family were ambitious, accomplished, politically active, and highly regarded. However, one after another, they left Raleigh to go North, and after a while Raleigh forgot them.  They had to go elsewhere to thrive without the heavy yoke of racism. And thrive, they did – and still do!

Through the 20th century, Raleigh systematically broke the back of proud Oberlin. Wade Avenue cut right through the neighborhood. White neighborhoods were built on land acquired from struggling blacks and resold with racially restrictive covenants. Oberlin School was closed. Oberlin Road was rezoned commercial, and house-by-house, block-by-block, Oberlin disappeared.

Raleigh wasn’t alone. Cities all over the nation (not just the South) have similar stories. You can’t help but wonder how things would have been different if Raleigh had embraced the Graves (and others) and turned that remarkable talent to work here. The preservation of these two houses will remind us to ponder that question for benefit of future generations.

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(News and Observer, 11/9/19)