Antebellum Raleigh: Cameron Plantation and Oberlin Village
Right in the heart of downtown Raleigh, where NC State students drink lattes and shop in boutiques, once sat a very different world: An antebellum plantation, complete with a classical mansion straight out of Gone with the Wind, and the sad Southern history of enslaved men and women.
The name of the plantation owner will sound familiar to many locals: Judge Duncan Cameron. The Cameron family owned much of the land in that section of Raleigh, encompassing modern locations such as Cameron Village shopping center and the Cameron Park neighborhood.
In fact, the Duncan family, connected through marriage to the Bennehan family, owned two local plantations–the Cameron Plantation in Raleigh and Stagville Plantation in Durham. Duncan Cameron married Rebecca Bennehan in 1803, effectively combining their family holdings.
Life on the Cameron Plantation
Duncan Cameron gained much of his wealth investing in property, which included slaves.
Owning over 1000 slaves, the Stagville and Cameron Plantation complex was one of the largest in the South. Because of its location, historians believe the men and women enslaved on Cameron Plantation were likely not field workers. Instead, hypothesizes Susan Adley-Warrick, the Secretary for Friends of Oberlin Village, a group that preserves and protects the history of the Oberlin Community, shares, “The slaves kept on Cameron Plantation likely worked in the house or driving the carriage, as the surrounding area was mostly forest.”
Many of the men and women kept as slaves on Cameron Plantation were, according to detailed records kept by the Cameron family, taught skilled jobs. Some were even taught to read. Cameron valued education, investing much of his wealth in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and St. Mary’s College.
Because of Cameron’s passion for education, his slaves had particular “advantages”–if one can call anything in slavery an advantage–over average field workers on other plantations, the men and women freed from Cameron Plantation had higher chances of success once freed than other slaves, who were never taught to read, write, or do skilled labor. In fact, many of the slaves who lived on Stagville in Durham became sharecroppers once freed (however, there were plenty of successful businessmen and women who accumulated wealth, leading to Black Wall Street in Durham). Meanwhile, the freed men and women of Raleigh set to work establishing the historically, economically, and culturally significant Oberlin Village.
From Slavery to Freedmen of Oberlin Village
So if Cameron Village shopping center is named after the slaveowner Duncan Cameron, then Oberlin Road, which cuts right through Cameron Village, originated as part of Oberlin Village, a community of freed slaves built by the men and women emancipated from the Cameron Plantation. James E. Harris, one of Cameron’s former slaves, established Oberlin Village in 1866, during the Reconstruction period, and named it for his alma mater, Oberlin College in Ohio, which was a known abolitionist college.
In fact, until the shopping center was established in 1947, the district maintained the Oberlin name. However, when the land was re-zoned and developed for commercial use–and, in fact, many of the families were given no choice but to sell their homes. “By 1960 the encroachment of Raleigh and the rezoning of land along Oberlin Road for commercial usage began to erode the village’s identity as an independent African American community,” Oberlin historian Ruth Little writes in her Raleigh Historic Landmark Designation Application for Oberlin Cemetery.
Oberlin Village, built by people literally raised from slavery, who owned nothing, grew into a successful community of educated, wealthy, influential black families.
So it seems all the more tragic and unfair that, after all their hard work and success, Oberlin was bought out from beneath them, historic houses torn down, identity razed, and then re-named Cameron Village, after the name of their ancestor’s former slave owner.
Racism and Triumph in Oberlin Village
According to Little’s proposal, “Harris, who established Oberlin Village, was the president of the Raleigh Cooperative Land and Building Association, which developed the land into individual plots. Residents purchased these tracts with income earned as cobblers, masons, blacksmiths, soldiers, farm workers, laundresses, nurses, and teachers.”
Oberlin Village produced many significant movers and shakers that helped create modern-day Raleigh.
Wilson W. Morgan
The great-great grandfather of Sabrina Goode, who now manages the Friends of Oberlin, Morgan was a freed slave. He helped develop Oberlin Village, and donated a parcel of land that became Wilson Temple United Methodist Church, one of the village’s surviving historic landmarks. He was one of the first black men to serve in the House of Representatives.
Plumber T. Hall
Also a former slave, Hall started Oberlin Baptist Church, which is celebrating its 144th anniversary.
Shepherd founded North Carolina Central University, a historically black college.
Joseph Holt, Jr.
Holt, Jr. grew up on Oberlin Road by the InterAct building. His family sued to get him into Broughton in 1956 after school desegregation had been legalized. It’d still be twenty years before Raleigh’s schools would fully embrace integration.
His push paved the way for William Campbell, who earned the historic honor of being the first black student in Raleigh to attend a white school.
Brown vs. the Board of Education had legalized desegregation, but Raleigh schools, part of a more conservative Southern atmosphere, were slow on the uptake. Communities like Oberlin Village and courageous change advocates like Holt, Jr. helped Raleigh progress.
The Erosion of Oberlin Village
Some people believe the success, wealth, and influence captured by the black families during their mere 81 years–scant a generation–of freedom made the white families, many of whom were not as successful, feel threatened.
In any case, as Raleigh began re-zoning the land around Oberlin Village, homes were torn down to make room for widening roads, and historic landmarks were destroyed to make way for “progress.” The Golden Age of Oberlin Village came to a close. And, tucked away behind the hustle and bustle of a shopping center and growing Hillsborough Street scene, Raleigh forgot about Oberlin.
The cemetery was hidden away, not owned by anyone and therefore uncared for, and obscured by overgrown woods behind highrise apartment buildings 401 Oberlin. Only a handful of historic landmarks remain.
- The Latta House on Parker Street, associated with Latta University in the 1890s and early 1900s, burned about 2007. Today only the four houses designated as Raleigh Historic Landmarks: the Hall House, Turner House, Morgan House, and Graves House, along with the village’s two churches, Wilson Temple United Methodist Church and Oberlin Baptist Church remain.
That makes the work Friends of Oberlin does all the more important — Raleigh needs to hold on to its black history and heritage.
So the next time you drive down Oberlin Road, take a moment to remember the lives that built North Carolina. The work of Raleigh-based slaves created much of the wealth that contributed to UNC Chapel Hill and St. Mary’s College. Then, the work of freedmen helped develop the land in downtown and provide opportunities for other freed slaves. Those same freed people and their children began working in the government, building churches and schools and colleges, and paved the way for integrated schools.
And 81 years after being freed from slavery, after only 81 years of accumulating wealth and property, many Oberlin families who accomplished so much for our community were paid by the city to leave their dwellings and businesses and start over yet again. Then, their land was named for their former slave owner.
Meanwhile, Oberlin Village’s mighty name now fits on a street sign.