Interview with Ms. Cheryl Williams

Check out our interview with Ms. Cheryl Williams of Oberlin Village

Ms. Cheryl Williams (CW): My name is Cheryl Williams. You spell my name Cheryl with a “c.”

Adalia (A): We will begin with: how have you been living in the Oberlin Community or Oberlin Village?

CW: I’ve been in Oberlin since 2010. I came to help my elderly parents, who have since passed.

Leeya (L): Oh…I’m sorry for your loss!

CW: I was born in Raleigh at St. Agnes Hospital and my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my mother all lived in the family house. I grew up in New Jersey, so, I would come to Raleigh-to Oberlin-to visit my grandma for holidays and in the summer.

L: Do you mind telling us a little history about the Oberlin community? So, like where is Oberlin community, who founded…things like that.

CW: The area that was known as Oberlin Village-Historic Oberlin Village-was settled by a few free families. A farmer named Jessie Pettersferd bought 16 acres of land to farm from the Cameron Mordecai family. This was before the people that were enslaved were free. There were about six or seven families-free people-that had come to that area and built their homes and farmed the land. Then in 1865 when there was the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the enslaved people, many of them who were on the Cameron plantation, came to the Oberlin area because they could buy property, they could build their homes, churches and there was a school there were they were able to educate their children. These people were artisans. They were highly skilled with masonry, brick-laying, carpentry, ironworks, a midwife and, of course, preachers in the community. The children were taught and learned at a school named Oberlin School which is where the Interact building sits right now. The people were buried in Oberlin cemetery, which is behind the Interact.

L: We were just going to ask you about that! That’s great!!

CW: The cemetery is three acres with 645 people buried there. There are family plots with family plots with six to eight people buried in a plot. And, the Friends of Oberlin Village is the steward and takes care of the maintenance and preservation of the cemetery. That’s what I do for the Friends of Oberlin Village. I’m the cemetery steward. And we have three times a year that we clean up the cemetery. The next one will be April 17th, from nine to 12, rain or shine.

A: Is there a website for people to find more information?

CW: Yes. On the website there’s videos, there’s written articles all about the history.

Oberlin Village was one of 13 freedmen villages. Actually, you have to break it down…There were four started by freedmen. Oberlin was one of them. And then there were 11 that were founded by the newly freed enslaved people from the various plantations around North Carolina. And, Oberlin and Method are only two that there’s still remnants: there’re still historical sites there. In Oberlin there are five. There is one still in the Method area, which is over there near Meredith College on the other side of NC State.

L: Speaking of the remnants, what is going on with the restoration and such in the community?

CW: Alright, we have a couple things going on. For the cemetery, we are making sure the trees are healthy and trimmed. We’re getting ready to do a project where we will be fixing the tombstones. And we’re doing a genealogy project on the people that are buried in the cemetery to find out who their parents were and who their kids are.

A: Speaking of help, is there anything people in nearby communities, like in the Village District, could do to help?

CW: Oh yeah! Well, in the Village District, the people have been very helpful to us already. But, what neighbors can do is come out and help us on our cleanup days. If you go to the website and you like history and you like volunteering, you can join the group and help us with some of our committees and help with that.

L: And can kids help with that?

CW: Yes! Kids can get involved. Sometimes the scouts have helped us and the Eagle Scouts from White Memorial. Someone may need a book report of something done, where we can share the history. If people are good with the computer, we can always use help with stuff like that. We have a Facebook, which is ‘FriendsofOberlinVillage.’ We have an Instagram, too. If you look at Instagram for this month, it has all kinds of history tidbits.

Oberlin Village was a community of people that were very spiritual, they worked hard, they took care of their neighbors and they were able to use their skills to be good workers and they were able to use their skills to have a good life for their family.

L: How has the Oberlin Community changed through the years?

CW: Okay, the biggest change is that it went from being an African-American community to a mixed community. Very few African-American families live there now because it is not affordable for most people. The development of Raleigh has come in and bought a lot of the properties and then torn them down and built larger houses and these big multi-story residences and businesses.

Someone’s parents bought in Oberlin, say 30 years ago for $55,000 (a regular, modest house). Today, if you want to buy in Oberlin, you have to spend about half a million.

L: The prices really skyrocketed!

CW: That means not everyone has an opportunity to buy a home. The property taxes go up as the value goes up, so, some people had to sell their homes in order to have a good living.

The other thing that happened in Oberlin, that happens all over America is the Jim Crow laws, or the laws that were not equal for everyone. Our 14th amendment says that if you’re born here, you have the same rights as everyone that’s born here. Well, then these other laws prevented other people from having all the same rights. At one time, Black people couldn’t go or be taught at school, at one time we could not vote. In Raleigh, in particular, there used to be a time when a Black person couldn’t buy there, couldn’t spend the night there. When you have laws like that, it just means that it’s not equal…that Black people didn’t have the same chance as white people had. Over time, they began to feel like they didn’t have the same chance or the same opportunity…and it’s only because of the color of your skin. And that’s not fair. People would leave the Raleigh area and migrate to different places in the country where they felt they would have a better opportunity to get a better job, to buy a nice house, to raise their family safely.

A: Speaking of these changes how do you feel about it?

CW: You know what? It is, as a Black person, a BIPOC (Black Indigenous Person of Color), I’ve always had to deal with not having the same opportunity as other people. My parents were able to send me to school. They taught me that I could do whatever I could, I just had to work hard for it and prepare myself for it. I was able to do things I wanted to do, to meet my goal. Not everybody has that opportunity. So, I feel sad and sometimes I feel angry, especially when I see people that talk and do things just because someone is different or just because their way is changing.

When you have people who are willing to fight and hurt people in order to get their way, it’s very hard for some who doesn’t look like them to be able to reach their goals. They always have to work harder…And sometimes people don’t even get a chance to do it. Some people are willing to fight and hurt things for their way; it can be very hard for someone who doesn’t look like them to reach their goals. When you see inequities like that, it makes you angry, to be honest. And I know, telling these stories and when someone says something negative just because of the color of their skin or because of who they love, when you say something mean to that person, that’s not fair. Everybody has a right to live.

In Oberlin, it went from a place that was thriving. People were able to have their own business, they had their churches, their school…and, slowly but surely that was taken away, sometimes violently. There was never any Ku Klux Klan coming into Raleigh I don’t think, but the people there had to work hard for what they were able to get. The people there were proud, family-oriented, church-going people.