Rediscovering the history of Raleigh's Black neighborhoods: 'I think it's important for us to know'

Joel Brown Image
Wednesday, January 11, 2023
Rediscovering the history of Raleigh's Black neighborhoods
Segregation and racist deed covenants kept Black families, newly freed from slavery, from buying or renting in Raleigh proper.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- There's history untold amid the dozens of neighborhoods in the city of Raleigh. How those neighborhoods came to be often gets lost in time. And that can be especially true if the neighborhoods are historically Black.

A Raleigh author's new book is telling the stories of these communities and the lessons we can learn from history.

Carmen Cauthen walked with ABC 11 In southeast Raleigh through what we now know as Chavis Park.

"This was Chavis Heights," she said as she led the way to the neighborhood next over. "This was outside of Raleigh. It was called Watson's Lands."

In the years after the Civil War, all of what is known as southeast Raleigh was outside city limits. Segregation and racist deed covenants kept Black families, newly freed from slavery, from buying or renting in Raleigh proper.

So, on the edges of Raleigh's old borders, Black families built their own neighborhoods. Names like Method, College Park and Smoky Hollow which is now gentrifying with luxury apartments -- but back then was a Black enclave. It was named for the smoke from the old coal-fired engines in the trains idling at nearby Seaboard Station.

"It was called Smoky Hollow because it sat in the bottom. And when the trains were there, the smoke filled the air," said Cauthen.

The people and the Capital City they helped build are at the heart of Cauthen's new book, Historic Black Neighborhoods of Raleigh.

Cauthen aims to fill the void of an untold Raleigh history. Her book was celebrated at a publication party Monday night at First Baptist Church in downtown.

"It's the biggest blessing to my heart because it's what I wished I had on the shelf of my elementary school as a fourth and fifth grader to be able to learn," said Courtney Napier, a Raleigh writer.

Terrance Ruth, a NC State professor and former candidate for mayor added, "Sometimes we get very emotional when we talk about our Black neighborhoods... this is our treasure."

Cauthen's curiosity was sparked as a child growing up in northwest Raleigh. She was the daughter of Black professionals in a mostly-white neighborhood in the 1960's who remembers asking her mom, why they don't live in a more diverse neighborhood.

"And the reason we moved there, my parents said, was because they would have to buy two lots to be able to build the size house that they wanted in southeast Raleigh," Cauthen recalled.

Her research led her to the old land surveys and property plans for the neighborhoods that would house the city's newly-freed Black citizens: the former plantations divided into parcels that were a fraction of the size of properties in whiter neighborhoods like Raleigh's Oakwood.

"Dividing the land that way says 'I'm gonna cram as many people as I can to make as much money as I can'," Cauthen said. Her book helps make the case that the land decisions of Raleigh's past explain the disparities in the generational wealth of Black families in Raleigh's present.

"Sometimes we have to question why things occurred," she added. "I think it's important for us to know the roots of the systems that were started."

While this is Cauthen's first book, she says it won't be her last. She's already looking to dig deeper into the people and stories of the folks who helped build these neighborhoods.