New exhibit at Historic Oak View County Park highlights the history and contributions of Black builders and architects
It begins on land where enslaved people once worked. The historic farm and home of the Benton Williams family still stands today with some structures likely built by those once enslaved.
“We have been able to do some research into their lives and uncover their names and also trace their lives after slavery as well as the steps they took in freedom to create lives for themselves and their families,” said Abby Kellerman, a park manager of education.
She says, after reconstruction many freed individuals stayed on as sharecroppers and tenant farmers. Many others like them set out to make their mark designing and building homes, churches and colleges.
“We can still see the physical legacy of these individuals and the work and the skill that they put into really constructing the state and are some of our most important resources,” Kellerman said,
In the Farm History Center at Historic Oak View County Park, you can learn about James Henry Harris, “who was an upholsterer, so he was a skilled artisan in North Carolina,” said Kellerman, adding that Harris had a second career as a politician.
Harris was one of four delegates chosen from Wake County to participate in the 1868 Constitutional Convention. He served along with Benton Williams, the owner of the Oak View estate, who also sided with the Union’s cause during the Civil War.
Also featured in the exhibit is C.E. (Calvin Esau) Lightner, who attended Shaw University and became one of the leading builders of Raleigh’s Black middle class.
Philip Freelon is one of the most well-known architects in this exhibit. Kellerman said, “he’s actually known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture which is the Smithsonian building in D.C.”
She added, “I do appreciate that it highlights Danita Brown who was the first Black American woman licensed to practice architecture in North Carolina.”
Now, on the very ground where enslaved people once toiled the exhibit celebrates progress. “I think it really shines a light on these individuals who perhaps were overlooked in history. It encourages us to learn more about our local history,” said Kellerman.
The Historic Oak View County Park is always open for self-guided tours – Monday through Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. – and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.