Thousands of Raleigh Freed Slaves Built the First Freedmen’s Villages ::

— Filled with modern cafes, restaurants and trendy boutiques, it can be hard to imagine a time when downtown Raleigh was instead filled with sprawling fields, plantation homes – and hundreds of shrunken individuals in 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, thousands 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.

What happened to the 13 Freedman Villages of Raleigh?

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 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.”

Joel Lane House Museum

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.

The Duncan Cameron Plantation.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.

Freedmen’s Villages: Building a community from the ground up

The land which now comprises the Village District (formerly Cameron Village) was once a pre-war plantation owned by Duncan Cameron. Cameron is known to have had 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.

History of the village of Oberlin

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.

St. Agnes Hospital in downtown Raleigh

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 sound 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.”

Emancipation Day: First African-American holiday celebrated in Raleigh

Juneteenth was originally primarily celebrated in Texas; however, the African-American community in Raleigh and many other southern cities celebrated a holiday called “Emancipation Day”.

Emancipation Day was observed on January 1, the date on which the Emancipation Proclamation was originally signed – although true emancipation did not come to a Confederate state until occupied by Union troops.

The Raleigh community began celebrating the holiday in 1870, according to Preservation NC President Myrick Howard.

“It became a big deal. It started with a parade. People came from their respective neighborhoods and churches in downtown Raleigh. There were choirs. It became a big gathering with speakers, poetry, music,” he says.

Each year, the African-American community would come together and create resolutions about what it felt its citizens needed to do to grow and flourish in Raleigh.

“Sometimes they would set lofty goals; other times they would reflect on the past,” says Howard.

First days of freedom: Thousands of freed slaves in Raleigh built the first freedmen's villages

Willis Graves, a prominent member of the village of Oberlin, whose home still houses the offices of Preservation NC today, was the chairman of Emancipation Day celebrations from 1899 until about a decade later.

The first official day of Graves’ emancipation as president came just weeks after the Wilmington Massacre, in which many members of Wilmington’s African-American community were massacred.

“It was a very thoughtful year,” says Howard.

Emancipation Day was set on a deeply symbolic date – January 1 reflecting some of the best and worst experiences for enslaved men and women.

“It’s a double whammy,” says Howard. “January 1 was the date the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. However, it was also the day in each year that slaves were generally sold.”

January 1 was a day of freedom, as well as a day of despair.

“It was market day. The day they were sold or hired out. Where a white man could buy the services of a slave for a year,” Howard explains.

A historical marker honors the black reverend who preserved the history of the Wilmington Massacre

After emancipation, it was considered a powerful thing – being able to celebrate and plan for the future on what was once the worst day of the year.

Emancipation Day ended, according to Howard, around the 1920s. Affected by both the Great Depression and the Great Migration, when many members of the Graves family – who hosted the celebrations locally – left Raleigh. Lemuel Graves, the son of Willis Graves, had succeeded his father as president. However, he eventually moved to Harlem, New York.

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.

What happened to the 13 Freedman Villages of Raleigh?

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.

Jonathan Olu-Taylor, Djembe Drummer, opens Dix Park's Juneteenth event with a celebratory song.  Photo taken June 19, 2021.

WRAL News has been working to compile a list of June 19 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.”

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