Raleighites: Oberlin Village

A Monument Rises at Oberlin Village

by Liza Roberts

photographs by Madeline Gray

A long a stretch of Oberlin Road, Raleigh’s boomtown growth is plain to see. Condos, restaurants, and office buildings crowd blocks where modest, set-back bungalows once stood. Accountants, digital marketers, and masseuses arrive for work each morning; storefronts offer hot yoga, smoothies, and manicures.

But as the street wends from Wade Avenue to Cameron Village, its latest changes point proudly to the neighborhood’s past, not its future. A few historic houses are being restored. An overgrown cemetery has been reclaimed. A new historical overlay designation will now restrict some development, and a road marker has been installed. But nothing is as striking as Oberlin Rising, the new work of public art that now forms a soaring tribute to Oberlin Village, the once-vibrant African-American community founded here during Reconstruction.

Dedicated last month, Oberlin Rising consists of five tall earthcast markers that bend gently toward ancestral gravesites. In a newly created plaza open to the public, their troweled surfaces stand as high as 20 feet over low walls that invite pedestrians to sit among daffodils and native grasses. The spires rise above site-cast, curbed outlines of house foundations that evoke families past, and draw attention to the poetry engraved on steel plates on benches and walls that tells the story of this former freedmen’s community established after Emancipation that thrived here from 1873 through the 1970s. (The poetry appears opposite and throughout the following pages.)

Oberlin Rising is a tribute and memorial to those founding freedmen and the generations that followed; it is the collaborative creation of an artist, a poet, a proud community, and a patron with a mission.

Longtime kinship

For years, whenever Smedes York drove past his McDonald-York Building Company headquarters, he’d tell himself that one day he’d do something meaningful with the acre or so of grass between the building and Oberlin Road. A prominent property developer and former Raleigh mayor, York eventually decided he wanted to commemorate its historic, disappearing surroundings.

“I’ve always felt a kinship with the Oberlin community,” he says. York grew up and still lives on Craig Street, on the northern edge of Oberlin Village, and his father, J. Willie York, developed Cameron Village shopping center immediately to the southeast. From his second-floor conference room at McDonald-York, Smedes York can look out at the vestiges of the community he remembers fondly.

Joe Holt Jr., who was born here in 1943 and grew up at 1018 Oberlin Road, up the street from where the McDonald-York building now stands, describes the Oberlin Village of his youth and young adulthood as “a unique and very special community; a tranquil place, a place where everybody knew you, where we didn’t lock our doors. It was a neighborhood full of educators and artisans; an environment that valued education, good behavior, proper decorum, church, and family.” Holt became well-known here as a boy in 1956 when he was denied the opportunity to integrate Daniels Middle School. A year later, he was also denied the opportunity to attend and integrate all-white Broughton High School.

Much of the residential neighborhood that provided the foundation for his childhood and that of so many others has given way to rising property values, zoning changes, and the pressures of massive growth.

But its community, York says, “needed to have something that’s not going to change. It needed something that’s going to stay.” About a year ago, he decided on a tribute in the form of a work of art. He wanted it to be significant. He cites urban planner and architect Daniel
Burnham as guiding his thinking: “Make no little plans,” Burnham said in 1907. “They have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

“If we’re going to do a sculpture,” York thought, “let’s get the top guy.” He called Thomas Sayre.

Listening well

Known around the world for his monumental public art shaped in and of the earth, Sayre says the first thing he had to do was to learn more about the neighborhood’s history. Together with York, he met with a group that cared about it and knew it well, including Air Force veteran and St. Augustine’s College graduate Holt; founding member of Friends of Oberlin Village Sabrina Goode; and longtime residents Mable Patterson and periodontist Knox McMillan.

“I showed them the site,” Sayre says. “I said, tell me about the neighborhood. And they told me.” They told him about the social commerce made possible by houses with porches, about children growing up bound by proximity and kinship. They told him about hard work and responsibility, about sacrifice for education and service, about feelings of pride and patriotism and safety and ownership. They told him about the neighborhood’s foundations and values forged by ancestors, many of whom had been enslaved.

Sayre’s job was somehow to make all of that visual. Right away, he imagined tall, strong, graceful vertical structures that drew the eye in and up and over the road. At first, he imagined these as people, possibly people “going somewhere good.”

But the idea didn’t gel – not with Sayre, and not with the community members. The story of Oberlin Village was more complicated than a simple march forward, more layered with history, more painful, and also more meaningful. York, for his part, let the community’s voices guide the process. “Smedes indicated he wanted to make sure the community felt good about it,” says Holt. “He was very low-key and didn’t really make any suggestions. I applaud him for that. He was very reserved and just kind of observed. It was very generous.”

Months passed. Then a visit Sayre made with his wife Jed to the Oberlin Village cemetery across the street changed the project’s direction. “I saw a little sign,” he recalls. “Don’t pick up any rocks or sticks, because they could be the markers of the unmarked. And I realized that was what (the vertical structures) had to be: markers. I changed the language, and the committee instantly connected.” The community, he realized, wanted its history recorded, its ancestors known. “They want to be marked, and they want to count, and they want to be seen,” Sayre says he realized. “And who doesn’t?”

Textured pillars created by artist Thomas Sayre tower above the Oberlin Rising park. The surfaces of the pillars reference the work and industry of the African American community that used to live in the area.

It was this realization, Sayre says, that enabled him to create both a literal monument as well as a serious work of abstract art. He dug deep furrows in the land to fill with steel supports, concrete, and earth, then raised them up to soar above. He built low walls to evoke the houses and porches that formed the community’s backbone. He made space for visitors to pause and contemplate, and guided the creation of a natural landscape that subtly resembles cultivated rows.

“Real visual art has to both evoke stories and generate them,” Sayre says. “It has to resist being an avenue for words. In the end, it’s a visual thing. It’s not the illustration of an idea. It has to be an idea.”

Ode to Oberlin

The addition of poetry to the project helped to further anchor it. Sayre had worked with Durham-based African-American poet and playwright Howard L. Craft on a previous project, and asked him to consider composing verse to accompany the sculpture and plaza.

Like Sayre, Craft met with people in the neighborhood, and listened well. “African-American history is all around us, and most people don’t have a clue about it,” Craft says. The people he spoke with told him about their warm memories of Oberlin Village, but also “talked about overcoming obstacles, about helping to integrate Raleigh public schools … about the local businesses that existed that no longer exist. They talked about military service, about sacrifice, about taking a road trip when you can’t stop to use the bathroom, but you’re still fighting for a democracy you don’t even have yourself. We talked about what they were able to create, and also the sadness about what is disappearing.”

Craft used all of it to craft Ode to Oberlin, a series of lune poems – a kind of American haiku – now engraved at the site (and appearing throughout this story). Longtime resident Holt, for one, says the poems succeed in reflecting the essence of the place.

“I really was struck, and I guess somewhat stirred emotionally, when I went through and read what the poems had captured,” says Holt. “It tells our story. It tells people who we were, how we were, how we came to be, and why we were significant.”

This monument to that story is meant to last. York and his immediate family, who have funded the project, have also created a trust to preserve it in perpetuity. “It’s been a very exciting process, because it really has involved the Oberlin community,” York says, looking out his office window to a new view of Sayre’s lofty markers. Beneath them, a visitor stoops to read one of Craft’s poems; newly planted daffodils sway; across the street, a Reconstruction-era house being freshly restored by Preservation North Carolina stands proudly by, and some of the thousands of cars that drive by every day swish past. “It’s really significant to me,” York says. “I have a lot of pride in the fact that this community is here. I want this community to feel good about it. This is theirs.”

Holt, who says one of the more rewarding results of the project is the friendship he has established with York, believes the community has received the monument in just that fashion. “While it’s painful to know that we’ve lost our community, it is some consolation to know that much of its history has been captured, and that there is a monument there, a park that speaks to who we were in Oberlin, what our history was, and our contributions to Raleigh. We will not be forgotten.”