Vil­lage built by for­mer slaves fast dis­ap­pear­ing, but not these 2 houses

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY RICHARD STRADLING [email protected]­sob­server.com

Ober­lin Vil­lage, the com­mu­nity formed by for­mer slaves af­ter the Civil War that once stretched two miles along its name­sake road, has been shrink­ing for decades, en­veloped by a grow­ing city and mus­cled un­der by of­fice build­ings, apart­ments and stores.

But two houses that have man­aged to survive are be­ing saved and re­stored, thanks to Preser­va­tion North Carolina. The statewide or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­tects and cel­e­brates old build­ings is ac­quir­ing homes built by two of Ober­lin Vil­lage’s most prom­i­nent fam­i­lies and turn­ing them into its new head­quar­ters.

To save the houses, Preser­va­tion North Carolina had to move them. The home built by Rev. Plum­mer T. Hall along an un­paved road in the 1880s was only a few feet from busy Ober­lin Road and had to be pushed back from the street. The larger, two-story Graves-Fields House, built around the same time about 50 yards down the street, was bought by a de­vel­oper who plans to put an of­fice build­ing on the site.

So Preser­va­tion North Carolina had the Graves-Fields House moved next to the Hall House, where the two his­toric build­ings will be con­nected by a new base­ment and an out­side deck. Movers rolled the Graves-Fields House through the back park­ing lot of Ober­lin Bap­tist Church this week, then eased over its new foun­da­tion fac­ing Ober­lin Road.

While it is sav­ing houses, Preser­va­tion North Carolina has also un­cov­ered the sto­ries of the fam­i­lies who lived in them. Ober­lin Vil­lage was the largest of at least five com­mu­ni­ties es­tab­lished by African-- Amer­i­cans af­ter the Civil War on what was then the out­skirts of Raleigh and was named for the lib­eral arts col­lege in Ohio known for its abo­li­tion work and where one of the vil­lage’s pro­mot­ers, James H. Har­ris, was en­rolled be­fore the war. By 1880, it had grown to about 1,000 res­i­dents.

Many of these house­holds were headed by skilled crafts­men like brick­ma­son Wil­lis Graves, ac­cord­ing to a re­port writ­ten by Raleigh his­to­rian M. Ruth Lit­tle. Graves and his wife Eleanor built a house on a lot he bought in 1884 and raised six chil­dren there, in­clud­ing three fu­ture school teach­ers, a car­pen­ter, a pro­fes­sor of sci­ence at Flor­ida A&M Univer­sity and a prom­i­nent civil rights at­tor­ney in De­troit.

Su­san Mask, a re­tired at­tor­ney in Seat­tle and Wil­lis Graves’ great grand­daugh­ter, had never seen the home in per­son, though it ap­pears in sev­eral old fam­ily pho­tos of great aunts and cousins. Mask said the re­search done by Preser­va­tion North Carolina has fleshed out the fam­ily’s oral his­tory and put dis­tant re­la­tions back in touch with each other.

“It’s been quite a won­der­ful jour­ney for us,” Mask said in a phone in­ter­view. “The house is

‘‘ THE HOUSE IS WON­DER­FUL, BUT I THINK WHAT IS RE­ALLY SO IM­POR­TANT IS HEAR­ING THE STO­RIES AND UN­COV­ER­ING WHAT THIS COM­MU­NITY DID TOGETHER.

Su­san Mask, Wil­lis Graves’ great grand­daugh­ter

won­der­ful, but I think what is re­ally so im­por­tant is hear­ing the sto­ries and un­cov­er­ing what this com­mu­nity did together.”

The Graves fam­ily lost the house in the Great De­pres­sion, and it was sold in 1945 to Jean­nette and Spur­geon Fields, a driver and com­pan­ion for News & Ob­server publisher Jose­phus Daniels. Their grand­daugh­ter, An­dria Fields, lived with them when her fa­ther was away with the Army and re­calls the Ober­lin Vil­lage of the 1950s as a place where ev­ery­one knew and looked af­ter each other.

Fields, who lives in Wake For­est, re­mem­bers her grand­fa­ther’s full and metic­u­lous flower and veg­etable gar­dens and large gath­er­ings in the back­yard on La­bor Day, with piles of fried fish, chicken, ribs and bar­be­cue. When she drives down Ober­lin Road now she hardly rec­og­nizes it.

“It’s a good thing to see change,” she said. “But I think the house be­ing there will al­low peo­ple to see for them­selves that this was once a thriv­ing com­mu­nity. Yes, it’s changed, but the roots of the com­mu­nity are still there.”

Preser­va­tion North Carolina has re­vived and pro­tected other threat­ened prop­er­ties in Raleigh by turn­ing them into its head­quar­ters. Be­gin­ning in 1982, when it moved a late 19th cen­tury cot­tage fac­ing de­mo­li­tion to North Blount Street, Preser­va­tion North Carolina has made its home in four his­toric build­ings, most re­cently the Briggs Hard­ware Build­ing on Fayetteville Street down­town.

Preser­va­tion North Carolina got in­volved with the Hall House sev­eral years ago when the city, which had ac­quired it through fore­clo­sure, asked if the or­ga­ni­za­tion would help find a buyer, said its pres­i­dent, Myrick Howard. Lawyer and de­vel­oper Jim An­thony then of­fered to do­nate and move the Graves-Fields House so he could build an of­fice build­ing, and the idea of com­bin­ing the houses into a new head­quar­ters took hold.

ON THE NA­TIONAL REG­IS­TER

The houses are among five prop­er­ties in Ober­lin Vil­lage on the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, with the ad­di­tion of the com­mu­nity’s ceme­tery in Septem­ber. Both houses were built in the Queen Anne style pop­u­lar in the late 19th cen­tury. Ex­cept for its mod­est size, Howard said, the Hall House “would fit just fine in Oak­wood,” Raleigh’s his­toric neigh­bor­hood of grand Vic­to­rian homes just north­east of down­town.

Both houses tell their own sto­ries. The Hall House now con­sists of just three rooms, to­tal­ing less than 600 square feet; re­cent ad­di­tions to the rear had been eaten up by ter­mites, Howard said. One of the orig­i­nal rooms was Rev. Plum­mer’s of­fice, reached by a sep­a­rate door off the front porch be­cause his church, Ober­lin Bap­tist Church, didn’t have one.

Mean­while, the GravesFields House was cob­bled together of dif­fer­ent parts, perhaps ac­quired over time as left­overs from jobs Wil­lis Graves worked lay­ing brick. The wain­scot­ing on the walls doesn’t match from room to room, and the front win­dows are dif­fer­ent sizes, Howard said.

In pre­par­ing to move the house, work­ers found more sur­prises, in­clud­ing that the back sec­tion was ac­tu­ally a sep­a­rate build­ing, likely a small home like the Hall House, that had been dis­guised un­der the alu­minum sid­ing.

“It’s an odd, in­ter­est­ing de­sign,” Howard said. “It wasn’t built from a plan.”

But the house also was “the largest, and one of the most ex­u­ber­ant, Queen Anne style dwellings in Ober­lin,” ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Reg­is­ter ap­pli­ca­tion writ­ten in 2001. It has a large, wrap­around porch from which a tower rises at one end, and el­e­gant touches, in­clud­ing stained-glass win­dows and a small win­dow over the front door on which is painted the home’s name, “Oakcrest.” (with a pe­riod). Howard spec­u­lates that Wil­lis Graves, born into in a world where the big homes and plan­ta­tions owned by whites all had names, wanted his home to have one as well.

OBER­LIN HIS­TORIC DIS­TRICT

In re­cent decades, the Graves-Fields home has been sand­wiched be­tween the church and the win- dow­less brick wall of an of­fice build­ing from 1965. Sev­eral other homes that once lined Ober­lin Road gave way to Cameron Vil­lage and other build­ings that spread north.

A year ago, the city cre­ated an Ober­lin his­toric dis­trict to help pre­serve what’s left. It re­quires ex­tra scru­tiny of re­zon­ing re­quests and pro­posed changes to the ex­te­rior of build­ings and was put in place at the re­quest of Friends of Ober­lin Vil­lage, which works to pre­serve and cel­e­brate its his­tory.

“We’ve got our fin­ger in the dyke, so to speak,” says Sab­rina Goode, the group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor.

Goode re­mem­bers when the friends group got started in 2011 that its mem­bers wished they had the money to pre­serve the Hall and Graves-Fields houses. She called Preser­va­tion North Carolina’s ef­forts “mon­u­men­tal,” and said it’s im­por­tant that some phys­i­cal ves­tiges of Ober­lin Vil­lage survive so peo­ple don’t for­get this place built by African-Amer­i­cans af­ter eman­ci­pa­tion.

“I think the com­mu­nity, and the city as a whole, need that vis­ual re­minder,” she said.

JU­LIA WALL [email protected]­sob­server.com

The Graves-Fields house was built around the 1880s and be­longed to a prom­i­nent fam­ily in Ober­lin Vil­lage. It was moved from its orig­i­nal lo­ca­tion, just a few feet from busy Ober­lin Road, next to the Hall House on the other side of Ober­lin Bap­tist Church.

JU­LIA WALL [email protected]­sob­server.com

The Graves-Fields house was moved to the other side of Ober­lin Bap­tist Church, fur­ther back from the in­creas­ingly busy Ober­lin Road. Preser­va­tion North Carolina worked to pre­serve the struc­ture and an­other his­toric home.

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