Voices of Oberlin Celebrates the Faces of Raleigh’s Oldest Historically Black Neighborhood

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) — The nation is preparing to mark its newest federal holiday on Monday. Juneteenth marks the day when the last enslaved people in the United States learned they were free. And in Raleigh, part of that story is being told through photographs of the families and people connected to Raleigh’s Oberlin Village, one of the very first enclaves for Black people freed from slavery.

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“The entire exhibit is amazing,” said Raleigh author and historian Carmen Cauthen about the portraits now gilding the walls of the first and second floors of Raleigh City Hall.

“Voices of Oberlin” is 20 photographs and 27 oral histories of the people and descendants of Oberlin Village. The community began in 1858 as 16 acres of west Raleigh for what was called a Freedmens Village — a safe space for free Black families to build a life after enslavement. And for more than 150 years, it served as a reliable Raleigh enclave for African Americans — including Cauthen whose portrait is part of the new exhibit.

“When I moved into Oberlin 30 years ago, it was all Black,” she said. “It’s completely different today. There may be 10 Black families still living there in Oberlin. But it’s still a community.”

Sarah Powers is executive director of Raleigh Arts which commissioned the works as a signal of Black Raleigh’s value and its historically-Black neighborhoods often left out of the city’s official history.

“Our public art team really sees the value in these stories,” said Powers. “Raleigh has been changing a lot. Oberlin Village is not immune to the change. It absolutely is facing the pressure of gentrification.”

Alongside the portraits, visitors can snap the QR codes for an oral history told by these men and women who endured the racism of the Jim Crow South; who desegregated Raleigh schools; and helped build the city’s Black middle class.

“It’s a privilege to be a part of it,” said Derrick Beasley, the photographer who captured them on canvas.

“It’s important that they get this exhibition. And their stories more specifically get the space they deserve in a central place in the city,” Beasley said.

Raleigh Arts and the Friends of Oberlin Village have been working on this project since 2019.

Voices of Oberlin is open and free of charge at the Raleigh Municipal Building. It runs until Sept. 22.

All the portraits and oral histories are also available now on the Raleigh Arts website.