|Remembering black Oberlin Village|
|Published Tuesday, March 13, 2018|
Cameron Village is an important footnote in the history of Raleigh, designed as an alternative to downtown shopping and reflecting a new national trend. But before it was called Cameron Village, it was known as Oberlin Village, a thriving black community built from the ground up. The land was owned, in the early 19th century, by Duncan Cameron, a statesman, judge, and major general with ties to UNC and St. Mary's. Cameron made his fortune investing in land and slaves.
During Reconstruction, James Harris, a former slave and future senator born on the Cameron plantation, purchased acreage from the Boylan and Cameron farmland. After receiving his freedom, Harris was apprenticed to a carpenter and later opened his own business in Raleigh. Harris left North Carolina prior to the Civil War and attended school at Oberlin College in Ohio. It was the first college in the world to admit women as well as men. It also was the first college that promised to educate African-American men and women.
Harris was able to assist prospective home builders in the area and served as chairman of the National Freedmen’s Saving and Trust, and Raleigh’ s Cooperative Land and Building Association. Black families purchased land along a dirt path north of Hillsborough Street for about $50 an acre (nearly nine times the going price for land in Wake County at the time) and began building houses.
In 1866, he founded Oberlin Village as one of the first free black communities in North Carolina. It also had its own school before the City of Raleigh established a school system.
The village grew and prospered. By the 1880s, there were 750 residents – mostly farmers, tradespeople, and skilled workers – many of whom actually built Raleigh from the ground up. They provided brick, stone, and masonry work not only for the houses and businesses along Oberlin Road but also for the state capitol and other significant downtown buildings.
The area produced many pioneering and influential black Raleighites. James Shepherd was born and raised in Oberlin before he founded North Carolina College (now N.C. Central University). John Baker, the first black sheriff of Raleigh, grew up in Oberlin. Oberlin Village thrived as an independent, black community for over 80 years.
In 1949, developers J.W. York and R.A Bryan opened a new shopping center in the suburbs as an alternative to downtown, right on top of Oberlin Village, naming it Cameron Village after the original landowners. When the land was re-zoned and developed for commercial use, many of the families were given no choice but to sell their homes. By the early 1950s, Oberlin Village and most of its living inhabitants were gone.
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