WPU Archaeological Field School Investigates Historical Freedman’s Settlement in Raleigh’s Oberlin Village
William Peace University conducted a field school in historical archaeology last month at Oberlin Village in Raleigh, in cooperation with neighboring institution, Wake Technical Community College. Oberlin Village is one of Raleigh’s first Freedmen’s settlements founded just after the Civil War.
The field school was led by Vincent Melomo, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Anthropology at WPU, and Tom Beaman, who is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Wake Tech. The pair led students from both institutions in the archaeological investigations on the property of the John T. and Mary Turner House, which is on National Register of Historic Places. The partnership also includes Dru McGill, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Anthropology at North Carolina State University, who will oversee the processing, cataloging and analysis of the recovered materials.
“We are really privileged to have the opportunity to be able to offer something like this to our students.”
The field school provides training for students in basic methods of archaeological survey and excavation as they explore the history and culture of the Oberlin Village community. Students participating in the program receive training in an archaeological field lab, hear guest lectures, and take field trips to learn more about African American history and culture and archaeology in North Carolina.
This has been the fifth field school in historical archaeology offered by Melomo and Beaman with William Peace University. The excavations on the Turner property were made possible by the permission of Cheryl Crooms Williams, who is the current owner of the house and a descendant of John T. and Mary Turner.
“I am just so happy to be able to afford this opportunity for the students,” Williams said. “I know these students will acquire skills they normally wouldn’t receive, and I’m just a believer that today we need to get to know our similarities as people rather than our differences, and this is one way that I feel I can make a little contribution.”
Oberlin Village was an African American community that prospered into the early twentieth century, but later faced many hardships, such as segregation, gentrification, and more recently, the growing urban development in the area. All of which have challenged the integrity and survival of the community over time, but despite this, several key historic structures and the village’s cemetery remain. To address the growing need of preservation, Friends of Oberlin Village was established with the mission to preserve and unearth the community’s rich history, and to learn more about its outstanding citizens.
“What we’re trying to do is learn more about the life of the Turner family, through the material culture we recover, things that people did, things that people had and to tell a richer story of what their lives were like,” Melomo said. “We are really privileged to have the opportunity to be able to offer something like this to our students. And you can’t get much more immersive than digging in the dirt, getting in the ground and discovering new things as they happen.”
Immersive learning opportunities, like the Oberlin Village field school, are a unique chance for WPU students to not only gain hands-on experience in conducting archaeological research but to also directly contribute to the preservation of an important part of Raleigh’s African American history. Materials recovered from the site will also help to further research of other Freedman’s communities, which can impact similar historical areas far and wide.
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