Years of hard work help Oberlin Cemetery gain historical designation

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As Cheryl Croom Williams strolls through Oberlin Cemetery's three-acre plot of land, it's clear this caretaker's passion runs deep and her knowledge is vast.

"I just feel the sacredness of this place whenever I come here," she said.

She showed ABC11 how people were making do with what they had when there was no money to spend. "These field stones, they would have been older," Williams explained.

She points out some of the artifacts found over the years. "Turns out the seashells are symbolic of crossing over the ocean," she said.

She walked over to the oldest grave. Under a magnolia tree, there is a simple black bag protecting a weathered wooden tombstone.

"The fact that is has survived is a miracle," said Williams.

Oberlin Cemetery was established in 1873 and it was one of the first few places where African-Americans could be laid to rest. The land was set aside by a freed farmer.

Artisans and bricklayers from the 1800's, a black Confederate soldier, doctors, teachers, attorneys, and Plumber Hall, who founded Oberlin Baptist Church which is still in existence, were all laid to rest there.

"The people that are buried here have contributed so much to the history of Raleigh," said Williams.

But that history took years to unearth.

Williams and others with the nonprofit, the Friends of Oberlin, have been working for close to a decade to preserve and restore the neglected, hidden slice of Raleigh's black history.

The cemetery is tucked away. It has no street frontage. The property is sandwiched behind businesses between Oberlin Road and Wade Avenue. You have to drive to the back of the parking lot for Interact of Wake County to access the cemetery.

When volunteers started their work, the lot was thick with brush.

Williams made a commitment to honor those interred.

"If we don't talk about it and bring it out, it will be forgotten. It'll be forgotten and that would be a shame," she said.

For the longest time, volunteers weren't even sure how many people were buried here. A scientist came in to do the work. He ended up using infrared and sonar technology to discover that hundreds were laid to rest at the site.

"We now have 645 stories that we're working on and we encourage the young people especially to come and learn," said Williams. "So many people that don't even know what sacrifices their family made."

Volunteers want to create pathways and install benches so people can visit their ancestor and properly pay their respects.

The nonprofit is now is offering walking tours. Schools and universities are taking advantage of the archeological opportunity.

The cemetery has been on the Raleigh Registry and soon, it's going to receive the nation's highest historical designation.

The Department of Interior is placing Oberlin on the National Register.

Williams hopes this serves as an inspiration to other communities to unsurface their own history.

"If we can do, we can also show people that you can do it too in your community. It's just a matter of having the conversations, starting the difficult ones and the ones that are so beautiful where you have people who were pioneers in different areas and paved the way," said Williams

Friends of Oberlin hosts several clean-ups throughout the year to help preserve the property. Usually, new artifacts are uncovered.

The next clean-up is April 13 from 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. rain or shine.
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