Play, documentary celebrate restoration of historic homes in Raleigh’s Oberlin Village
To dedicate its new headquarters on Oberlin Road next month, Preservation North Carolina could have simply planned a ribbon-cutting ceremony, with speeches and a photo op with an oversize pair of scissors.
Instead, the statewide historic preservation group is using the occasion to highlight the two restored houses it will occupy and their importance to the fast-disappearing Oberlin Village community that was founded by former slaves after the Civil War.
The group is holding a two-day symposium based at Shaw University that will include lectures and panel discussions and the premiere of a documentary about the preservation of the two houses. There will also be a stage reading from a work that Durham playwright Howard Craft is writing about a civil rights attorney who grew up in one of the houses.
“We were just looking for ways to celebrate these houses,” says Myrick Howard, Preservation N.C.’s president. “And have a good time doing it.”
The two houses have survived more than a century on a stretch of Oberlin Road now mostly lined with office buildings and a new condo complex. The home that the Rev. Plummer T. Hall built in the 1880s was saved by the city, while the larger, two-story Graves-Fields House, built around the same time about 50 yards away, was bought by a developer who planned to put an office building on the site.
Preservation North Carolina had the Graves-Fields House moved next to the Hall House, where the two buildings could be connected by a new basement and an outside deck and serve as the organization’s headquarters. The two houses are among five properties in Oberlin Village on the National Register of Historic Places.
Craft’s play, “Bending the Arc: Willis Graves Jr. and the Pursuit of Justice,” will tell the story of a man who grew up in Oberlin Village and went on to graduate from Shaw and Howard University’s law school before practicing law in Detroit.
Graves was on a team of lawyers who defended Ossian Sweet, a doctor who, along with his wife and several others, was charged with murder in 1925 after a white crowd threw rocks at the couple’s new home in a white neighborhood. The case ended in a mistrial, and only Sweet’s brother, Henry, was tried again. When an all-white jury acquitted him, the prosecutor dropped the charges against the others.
Craft says the 20-minute stage reading will draw on Graves’ experience with the Sweet case, which was followed by other cases Graves handled with the NAACP fighting covenants that restricted where African Americans could live in Detroit.
“I’m taking a moment from his life that I thought was very foundational to the things he would do later,” Craft said in an interview. “Telling that story gives people an idea of what the times were like and what African Americans were dealing with.”
Though the story takes place 700 miles away, the Graves house and Oberlin Village play an important role, Craft said. These carpenters and craftspeople living on the edge of a southern capital city had the audacity to name their community after a northern college and center of abolitionism while the memories of the Civil War were still fresh.
“The tradition of being able to survive and move forward in a very oppressive and restrictive time is what he drew inspiration from, to think that he could go to college and become a lawyer,” Craft said.
This is the first time Preservation North Carolina has ever commissioned a play, said Howard, its president.
“I hope it’s the beginning of more,” he said. “This will be so much more interesting than a traditional PowerPoint presentation.”
Preservation North Carolina’s fall symposium will take place Nov. 7 and 8 and include panel discussions on affordable housing in changing neighborhoods and when it’s appropriate to move historic houses. It is open to the public, but not free. A ticket for all the events, including an evening tour of historic houses along Raleigh’s Blount Street, costs $215, but tickets to individual events are available for $40 to $45.
For more information or to register, go to www.presnc.org/conference/
(News and Observer, 10/13/19)