There’s a rich history surrounding Oberlin Cemetery.
Officially founded in 1873 and used until 1971, Oberlin Cemetery is one of the four African-American cemeteries in Raleigh and served as a burial ground to the surrounding community of Oberlin Village. Developed from freed slaves from Cameron Plantation located in Raleigh, Oberlin Village was a unique community because of its massive population and fully self-sufficient status. Many locals in Raleigh can trace their roots to these origins and have an immense amount of pride for their ancestors.
In 2011, after years of seeing the cemetery being ignored by the city, a group of concerned locals decided to bring the community together four times a year to clean up the cemetery. In 2015, Friends of Oberlin Village, a group dedicated to cleaning and maintaining the cemetery, officially became a group.
Shortly after their formation, they made it their mission to get Oberlin Cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, in order to qualify, they had to know exactly how many people are buried in the cemetery. There are a total of 209 headstones but there have been hundreds of unofficial burials that were never marked with headstones or burial markers.
During the spring of 2016, John Millhauser, a professor of anthropology at NC State, read about the Friend of Oberlin's dilemma and decided to team up with Del Bohnenstiehl, a professor of geophysics at NC State, to solve the problem. Through Millhauser and Bohnenstiehl, John Wall, a graduate student studying earth science and an advisee of Bohnenstiehl, got involved in the project.
In the summer of 2016, Wall, along with the help of three interns from Wake Technical Community College, began scanning the cemetery.
With many early mornings and late nights, their daily routine usually depended on what had to be done that day between laser scanning, GPS surveying and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveying. Wall himself conducted the laser scanning, usually arriving at sunrise and leaving around sunset. Laser scanning is a technique using a light detection and ranging unit to create a topographic map of the Earth, allowing them to find depressions in the ground that could possibly be unmarked graves. This was not a quick and easy task. Each scan could take up to two hours at each location, and with there being 25 locations, a lot of time was required.
The GPS and GPR surveying was left up to the interns who rotated throughout the day starting at 7 a.m. until 4 p.m. GPR, which can tell you a lot about the subsurface of the Earth, works by emitting radio waves into the Earth's surface. A computer then interprets the signal which is returned to the GPR.
At the end of it all, the team was able to find between 500 and 626 individuals buried in Oberlin Cemetery, more than double the amount of the headstones in the cemetery.
The importance of the data found at Oberlin Cemetery strikes a personal chord with the local community.
Some of the individuals he’s talking about are James H. Harris and Plumber T. Hall, two men who not only impacted the local community, but more broadly life in North Carolina and Wake County. Many of the people buried in the cemetery served as educators and nannies to the local community and enlisted in the military dating as far back as the Spanish-American War. Not to mention that many locals such as Sabrina Goode, executive director of Friends of Oberlin, can trace their roots back to those buried in Oberlin Cemetery.
“We need to take into account all of America’s history,” Goode said. “There’s still so much history that we don’t know."
And she’s right. Places like Oberlin Cemetery fill in the gaps that public schools tend to look over. Projects like that done with the Oberlin Cemetery help expose the past and teach us more about the details that we missed early on.
Luckily, with the help of many Raleigh locals, the future is bright for Oberlin Cemetery.