Exploring African-American Heritage in Raleigh’s Oberlin Village

Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Author: 
Dru McGill-Assistant Professor, NC State University
Vincent Melomo-Associate Professor, William Peace University
Tom Beaman-Associate Professor, Wake Tech Community College

In the summer of 2018, Vincent Melomo (William Peace University) and Tom Beaman (Wake Technical Community College) led an archaeological field-school at the Turner House in Raleigh’s Oberlin Village. Oberlin Village is an historic African-American community and today is one of Raleigh’s Historic Districts. Founded in the mid-19th century, Oberlin Village quickly grew into a thriving community of artisans, skilled laborers, educators, and other professionals. Within a generation, residents erected two churches and a school, and established and cared for a community cemetery – Oberlin Cemetery. Despite significant threats and challenges faced by village residents including Jim Crow segregation and gentrification, descendants of the founding African-American families continue to live in the community and work, through the Friends of Oberlin Village organization, to preserve and educate people about Oberlin Village.

Goals of the Turner House excavations included: contributing to ongoing attempts to document and preserve Oberlin Village as an important site in Raleigh’s African American history; assessing the archaeological integrity of domestic and commercial features of the Turner House; and providing insight into the material life of the Turner family as an example of middle-class African American lifeways in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in this region.

Artifacts recovered from the 2018 Turner House excavations were processed and analyzed by undergraduate and graduate students at North Carolina State University (NC State), working under the supervision of anthropology faculty member Dr. Dru McGill. In a “Collections Management” course, the students cleaned, sorted, rehoused, and digitized many of the Turner House artifacts, while also researching the archaeology of African-American communities and the history of Oberlin Village.

Preliminary results from the artifact analysis show many interesting and noteworthy findings, even though few distinct features could be determined at the Turner House property. These artifacts provide evidence about early 20th century African-American practices ranging from recreation to consumption and subsistence habits to personal adornment and identity.

First, more than a dozen marbles were identified from the Turner House. The collections included both earthenware clay marbles, mass-produced glass marbles, and possibly handmade or locally made glass marbles in varying sizes, color, and condition. The Turner House property was directly adjacent to the former Oberlin School. Therefore, many children would have played in and near the Turner House yard. Marbles are an uncommon artifact type at historic archaeological sites – the presence of so many marbles at Turner House suggests collecting and playing with marbles were frequent activities, which would have contributed to socialization of youth within the community.

Second, a number of ammunitions were recovered. The most common spent rounds were both short and long .22 caliber casings, which came from numerous manufacturers and mostly date to the early 20th century. Discussing these artifacts with Oberlin Village resident and advocate Joe Holt, he recalled time spent in his youth hunting small game in the forests surrounding the community in attempts to add to the family table. Complementing the ammunition artifacts, numerous historic ceramic and glass artifacts suggest Turner family members were highly active consumers of both local and non-local commercial goods. Ceramics included several high-quality porcelain serving dishes (including a Japanese made “Phoenix ware” design); Glass artifacts included fragments of RC Cola bottles, cosmetic containers, and medicine bottles.

Finally, a special find from the Turner House excavations representing personal identity and craftsmanship was a complete wire ring. This ring was carefully handcrafted with three strands and twisted into a knot. The elongated oval shape of the ring could indicate frequent wear by its owner.

Analysis and interpretation of the Turner House artifacts will continue, with the goal of publishing the findings in historical archaeology outlets. For more information, see: https://friendsofoberlinvillage.org/. For more information, contact Dru McGill (demcgill@ncsu.edu) or the Friends of Oberlin Village (https://friendsofoberlinvillage.org/).

 

Image credits:
Turner House, image by North Carolina State Archives
Turner House marbles, by Dru McGill, courtesy of NC State Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Turner House ring, by Kiana Fekette, courtesy of NC State Deparmtnet of Sociology and Anthropology