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December 2000 Musings: Gone But Not Forgotten: Oberlin Village Cemetery, Raleigh NC

In Raleigh, North Carolina, near Cameron Village—the first mall built in the southeast region of the US—a freed slave cemetery known as Oberlin Village Cemetery lies nestled behind the YWCA. Oberlin Village was named after Oberlin College, outspoken during the Civil War with a strong anti-slavery stance. Many descendants of the freed slaves buried in the cemetery still live in Oberlin Village. Untended for years, the cemetery lay overgrown with brambles. A hurricane several years ago had left a wake of large diameter trees that lay helter skelter over the brambles and tombstones, making it virtually impossible to walk onto the grounds. Two years ago, a small group of dedicated neighbors began reclaiming the cemetery, clearing brambles and pulling out trees to make the grounds accessible so that one could walk among the graves again.

I was in Raleigh giving a concert in Bett Padgett’s Little Lake Hill House Concert series. Bett’s husband Bill is one of those who’s been committed to the restoration project, spending long Saturdays working in the graveyard. On tour with Bob Franke, I got into town a couple of days early. I was sitting in Bett’s music room the first night there, with Bett, Bob, and Dana Robinson, who had moved to Raleigh that very day, when Bill walked into the house fresh from a community meeting. A developer had proposed to build an enormous project on a 15-acre plot adjacent to the cemetery and Oberlin Village. While neighborhood groups favor high density and mixed use of city land, they were concerned about the proposed scale of development. Bill invited us to go with him to see the cemetery the next morning.

I have always loved cemeteries. I grew up across the street from one, in Barre, Vermont. Because of its proximity to the granite quarries in Graniteville and Websterville, Barre had become home to dozens of Italian immigrant stone carvers. The cemeteries in Barre, full of ornate and lovely headstones, are testimony to their presence and their skill. One of these is Elmwood Cemetery, on the corner of Washington and Hill Streets. The original workshop for the cemetery, built in the early 1800’s, was later moved across the street and converted to a dwelling. My family moved into that house when I was three. I spent countless hours of my childhood inhabiting the cemetery. In spring we scooped up polliwogs from the frog ponds, and in winter we dodged tree trunks on the hilly front lawn on sleds and toboggans. We built forts in the woods out back. Paved and dirt roads wound through the graveyard, and I’d meander on these paths on foot or on the blue Schwinn bike I got on my 9th birthday. A few rows in from the edge of the cemetery where I lived, there was the grave of a three-year-old. His name was Max, and a beautiful carved headstone of a young boy in a lacy dress had been erected over his grave. I used to sit next to him and have long one-sided conversations, after which I would hug him goodbye, reaching up to touch his broken nose.

Over the years since then, I’ve often stopped into cemeteries on my travels, loving the quiet sense of the sacred I find in them. So when Bill gave the cemetery invitation, I was delighted to accept. As our group entered the grounds of the cemetery, we were greeted by four crows, who hopped from gravestone to overhanging branch. I soon lagged far behind the others, drinking in the peace of the place, stopping to examine the worn headstones. Some of course were worn far beyond legibility, but on many the carvings were still clear. I had brought my journal, and I gathered names, dates and epitaphs as I went.

A song began nudging its way into my head as soon as we returned to the Padgetts’ house. I spent the rest of the day immersed in the song, piecing it together with information found on the gravestones and what Bill had told me. I quoted several epitaphs I’d read on the gravestones. I had found the grave of one John Dunston, who died on November 20, 1894 at the age of 66. Without having biographical information, I placed him in my song as an archetypal figure.

Back north after my tour, I was able to contact Jennifer Hallman in Raleigh, who has done extensive research on the Oberlin Village. Jennifer informed me that John Dunston had been, after the reconstruction, a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives. Though she had no evidence of John Dunston’s occupation as a slave, she told me that there had been a great number of brickmakers in Raleigh, thus the proliferation of beautiful brick historical buildings in the city. Guy Wolff, a traditional New England potter, described to me the process of slapping bricks and stacking them into their own temporary scove kiln. The line in the first verse “he burned the kiln till past sundown” is offered in respect for the many African-American artisans who contributed to the city of Raleigh and the area surrounding it.

Below you can find the lyrics to Gone But Not Forgotten. If you would like to learn more about the Oberlin Village Cemetery and the neighborhood organization that is working to limit the development in its vicinity, you can go to their website [no longer available]. They plan to put up an MP3 version of my song in its original version soon, which you will be able to download.

Thanks for checking in to read my musings. I hope to see you at one of my upcoming concerts!

Gone but Not Forgotten

John Dunston rose before the dawn
Gone to a brighter home
He burned the kiln till past sundown
Where grief cannot come

Gone but not forgotten

He slaved for his master half his span
Gone to a brighter home
The other half a freed man
Where grief cannot come

Gone but not forgotten

Oberlin Village in brambled row
Gone to a brighter home
Is tended by four black crows
Where grief cannot come

In a sunken grave John Dunston lies
Gone to a brighter home
As city traffic rumbles by
Where grief cannot come

Soft shade of oak and maple tall
Gone to a brighter home
O’er shadowed by a towering wall
Where grief cannot come

Where loyal hearts and true
Stand ever in the light
All rapture through and through
In God’s most holy sight

Gone but not forgotten

Lui Collins
December 6, 2000 (c)2000 Molly Gamblin Music/BMI

Oberlin Village Cemetery, Raleigh, North Carolina Epitaph quotes from:

Jerry Hinton
Died May 20, 1920, age 110 years
“Gone to a brighter home
where grief cannot come”

Edward T. Hester
Died February 26, 1929
“Where loyal hearts and true stand ever in the light all rapture through and through in God’s most holy sight”

Alonza Haywood
and Ophelia Sheppard
October 6, 1905 – September 4, 1906
“gone but not forgotten”

Warmly, Lui

Posted in Musings

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