Marking Time

Katherine Poole

A new park honors historic Oberlin Village

by Katherine Poole

At a small construction site on Oberlin Road between Wade Avenue and Cameron Village, five slightly curved, rough-hewn clay and concrete spires rise up, almost impossibly, from the earth. This is the beginning of Oberlin Rising, an art installation and park by local artist Thomas Sayre, with much help and inspiration from the surrounding community.

Oberlin Village was established after the Civil War by freed slaves on land that was once a plantation. By the turn of the century, it was a thriving neighborhood and many of the original homes and structures are still intact, making it one of North Carolina’s few remaining Reconstruction-era communities. It will now be honored and preserved with this new park, set to open later this spring.

Do not pick up or remove stones, rocks, glass, or shrubbery. These simple items are often grave markers. So reads a sign marking nearby historic Oberlin Cemetery, which predates the village and is thought to be a burial site for slaves. Those lines are the guiding inspiration for the park, Sayre says. He hopes the place will be a marker for the unmarked, a symbolic “marking of this community” to the greater Raleigh area, and he worked closely with Oberlin Village residents to bring it to reality.

courtesy Clearscapes

Each element of the installation is a marker, from the self-renewing landscaping to the lines of lune poetry integrated into the design by local poet and playwright Howard L. Craft. The five earthcast spires represent the labor of the community, from farming and trade work to education and social justice. Sayre had a surveyor make a site line for the spires to aim directly toward the cemetery (which is located behind the Interact building). Even the park’s marker is a marker: Sayre gathered the 10 oldest and 10 youngest village residents to cast their hands in concrete that was used to construct the Oberlin Rising sign. 

In February, Raleigh’s City Council granted the project an historic overlay, which sets specific design guidelines for new construction and renovation. The measure was an important step in recognizing this monumental effort to celebrate the Oberlin Village community. Walter looks forward to telling you more about the park upon its opening.