Oberlin originated as a freedman’s village, established by blacks after Emancipation. Oral tradition holds that some purchased land from whites as early as the 1860s, others were given land by the families who had enslaved them. The new landowners may not have built houses until the 1870s, but by 1880, the area was home to roughly 150 black households. Most men worked as farmers, masons, shoemakers, tinners, blacksmiths, and carpenters. Five were ministers, and a few were politicians. Women were laundresses, seamstresses, cooks, domestic workers, and farm laborers.
The social heart of the village was along today’s Oberlin Road between Mayview Road and Bedford Avenue, where churches, small shops, and prominent houses were all found. The Wilson Temple United Methodist Church was established there in 1873 in a frame sanctuary; the congregation built the Gothic Revival-style church in 1911. Rev. Plummer T. Hall, an early resident, preached at an Oberlin church that became known as Hall’s Chapel and later as Oberlin Baptist Church. The nearby Queen Anne-style Plummer T. Hall House was a gift from Rev. Hall to his bride, Delia.
Three dwellings clustered on Oberlin Road are particularly notable for their two-story height; the ca. 1890 Willis Graves House, the ca. 1900 James S. Morgan House, and the ca. 1910 front addition to the John and Mary Turner House. Two-story houses were rarities for the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century black homeowners in and around Raleigh and the larger houses reflect the relative wealth and stature of the owners. Graves and Turner both ran grocery stores, but both had other business enterprises as well. Graves did masonry and carpentry work, and Turner opened a shoe store on Hargett Street in Raleigh’s black business district. Morgan was the son of Wilson W. Morgan, an early Oberlin settler and Reconstruction-era politician who also helped found the Colored Educational Association of North Carolina.
Geographically, the village spread mainly southwest of this stretch of Oberlin Road, on a street grid centered on Bedford and Van Dyke Avenues. Pyramidal-roof, single-story cottages were built into the first decade of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, as modest bungalows were built along village streets, Oberlin was annexed into the City of Raleigh. Growth continued and trends shifted. A couple of masonry houses have Tudor Revival-style details, like front-facing gable wings or façade chimneys. Cape Cod houses and simple dwellings with minimal Colonial Revival details were most popular after World War II.
Oberlin Cemetery, established in 1873, is at the site of a slave graveyard, according to oral tradition. The cemetery retains a rural appearance. Grave markers vary, ranging from fine marble and granite obelisks to plain stone markers with no inscriptions. Government-issue military veteran stones are also in evidence. The earliest death date on an inscribed stone in the cemetery is 1876.
Oberlin, like Method, another freedman’s village that survived to be annexed into the city, is essential to understanding the history of black settlement and home ownership in Raleigh.