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The Broadside (Transcript): The kids are alright: NPR Student Podcast Challenge finalist

Anisa Khalifa: History is around every corner in the South — the good, the bad, and the ugly. But as the region has grown, we've lost the stories of many communities that once thrived here. But they are here. Sometimes you just have to look a little closer to find them.

Leeya Chaudhuri: This is a story about a community that has endured. This is a story about rising up after you've been bulldozed and beaten 20 times over, maintaining your self-respect and dignity despite it all. This is a story about the new South and the old South.

Anisa Khalifa: I'm Anisa Khalifa. This week on the Broadside, we hear from a young journalist who uncovered the history of her own neighborhood, and fought to bring it into the light, and preserve it for future generations.

Leeya Chaudhuri: My name is Leeya Chaudhuri. And recently, I was a finalist for the NPR student podcast challenge.

Anisa Khalifa: Leeya is a junior at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina where she’s enrolled in an audio production program. Last year, she worked on a project that grew out of a story that first came to her attention in the eighth grade.

Leeya Chaudhuri: The way I found out about Oberlin village was during the pandemic, my friend down the street and I founded a neighborhood magazine, because we noticed a lot of the elderly neighbors in our neighborhood, we just noticed the isolation that the pandemic created. And we wanted to kind of foster community.

Anisa Khalifa: That magazine eventually evolved into an oral history of her neighborhood.

Leeya Chaudhuri: For one of the editions, we did a Black History Month edition, and we wanted to learn more about the local history. So one of our neighbors referred us to one of her friends who was actually a descendant of the Oberlin community. Her name is Ms Cheryl Williams. And we interviewed her, and we just thought, like, wow, this is such an amazing story. More people should know about it.

Anisa Khalifa: Built up by freed Black people before and after the Civil War, Leeya’s neighborhood — Oberlin Village — is one of the longest-surviving and most in-tact communities of its kind in the South. And because of Leeya, more people do know about it. Its unique story was the focus of her podcast “Reclaiming History: The Resilience and Rebirth of Oberlin Village.” That 8-minute-long audio documentary garnered significant attention. It was a finalist in the 2023 NPR Student Podcast Challenge, which drew from a pool of over 3,000 entries.

Leeya’s podcast is very good. But don’t just take my word for it. Up next, we’re going to share the whole thing.

Unnamed narrator: Visitor's note — As you stand here, or sit and gaze, and breathe in the history of this place, know that it was born of sacrifice and struggle. And it was made and is made from the lives of people who loved and lived, and do so still, that their spirit lends strength to your own. So when you walk away, a piece of Oberlin travels with you.

Leeya Chaudhuri: This is a story about the rise of a remarkable community of freed Black people. It's about their fall because of annexation, gentrification and racist state laws. And now, it's about their rise again, about a community that's rediscovered the old history, rejected it and reaffirmed the rise of it again and again — through erecting sculptures, renaming public buildings, and removing the old legacy of slavery. This is a story of Oberlin Village, the longest surviving and most intact Reconstruction-era freedmen's colony in North Carolina.

I'm Leeya Chaudhuri, and I'm a student at Enloe High School. I live two streets over from Oberlin Village, but for the first decade of my life, I had no idea this history even existed. And I know my neighbors don't know about such history, that my classmates don't know about this history and that other Raleigh citizens don't know about this history. But before we get into the story of Oberlin, it's important to set up some context. Oberlin’s story started with a group of five free Black families. Ruth Little, a historian and author of two research papers on Oberlin, explains.

Ruth Little: In the 1850s, there was a group of five free Black families, they would have had small farms, very small farms with a lot of white neighbors.

Leeya Chaudhuri: After the Civil War, white farmers subdivided their farmland and sold lots to Black families. Land companies also provided loans to help them purchase land and build homes. Over time, the amount of Black families purchasing land grew, and a settlement was formed, and thus, Oberlin Village was born. It was named after the first college in the US to admit Black people and women, Oberlin College in Ohio. The name Oberlin village is associated with freedom and educational opportunities for Black people.

After this name change, Oberlin only continued to grow. And by 1880, Oberlin village was flourishing. It had a population of approximately 1130 Black households and was deemed as the premier African American suburb of Raleigh. However, not long after this zenith, Democrats came into power. Susanna Lee, professor at North Carolina State University explains.

Susanna Lee: White Democrats, through fraud and violence, are able to suppress black and white Republican votes, retake control over the state government and reverse a lot of the gains of Reconstruction.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Also during Jim Crow, the City of Raleigh annexed Oberlin village, which meant residents now had to pay city taxes and receive city services. Because the homeowners were Black, they didn't get the same quality of services. For example, sometimes trash pickup would be late. Carmen Cauthen, author of Historic Black Neighborhoods of Raleigh and former resident of Oberlin, explains the reason for this annexation.

Carmen Cauthen: Most of the communities that were where black people lived were annexed in order for the government to have control over policing. They wanted to have control over the people.

Leeya Chaudhuri: However, Oberlin village handled these changes well.

Ruth Little: They weathered Jim Crow, the villagers weathered it very well because they were independent and held their heads up high.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Unfortunately, things got harder for Oberlin with the construction of Cameron Village. It was Raleigh's first mixed-use shopping and residential development primarily marketed to a white crowd. Miss Little explains.

Ruth Little: Oberlin no longer being an independent village would have been in 1948, when Cameron Village was built a few blocks away on Cameron land.

Leeya Chaudhuri: With a lot of traffic running through Oberlin Village to access Cameron Village, the construction of the Wade Avenue highway began to take place. This resulted in a destruction of houses along a short street east of Oberlin Road called Wade Road. This dislocation forced out a number of families, splintering the community in half. As Cameron Village continued to grow, and the population of Oberlin increased, outsiders sprung on the opportunity to buy houses there.

Carmen Cauthen: When you think about Oberlin, part of the issue became since white people wanted to live there, they would offer higher prices for the land. You know, that would change somebody's mind about whether or not to sell the land that had been in their family.

Leeya Chaudhuri: As wealthier people began to move in, property taxes increased. Residents can attest to this.

Carmen Cauthen: We bought a house in 2000, the same house that we had rented for 10 years. The property tax value was $65,000. Today, the property tax value is $319,000.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Oberlin village serves as a valuable textbook case of gentrification that can be used to look at the city today.

Carmen Cauthen: Honestly, I think you could change the date on that to 2016. And it sounds just like the gentrification that's happening in our city today.

Leeya Chaudhuri: So clearly, Oberlin did not wear and tear on its own. It was affected by a variety of outside factors, most of them that the community did not ask for. Every day, hundreds of people drive past Oberlin village, this vibrant place that weathered so much, but somehow, it was still put aside, marginalized and forgotten by many. However, thanks to our increasingly accepting society, a new leaf is being turned over, sparking interest in Oberlin village.

Ruth Little: We’re in another period now where people, I think, are more aware of the systemic and justices have been done to Black people throughout their lives in this country.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Furthermore, the nonprofit Friends of Oberlin was established in 2011 to preserve the history of Oberlin Village. They do work on and off the ground from things like increasing research to organizing cemetery cleanups within the community. In addition to the increased knowledge about Oberlin village, many name changes have begun to take place. For example, the popular Raleigh shopping center, named after one of the largest slave owners in North Carolina, was renamed from Cameron Village to Village District.

Furthermore, after learning about Oberlin, my friend and I lobbied the Wake County Commissioners to change the name of Raleigh’s flagship library to Oberlin Regional Library. Other changes include the renaming of the post office by Congresswoman Deborah Ross and the unanimous renaming of public school Daniels Middle School to Oberlin Middle School. But to the community, these changes mean much more.

Unidentified Speaker: More than just the changing of the names, I think the Friends of Oberlin village has really brought to light some of the different impacts that we made. These people went to work every day, took care of their families, educated their children. And that's how we're similar to everybody else.

Leeya Chaudhuri: As our society becomes increasingly divided, full of hate and misinformation, it's more important than ever to find the similarities.

Unidentified Speaker: I just believe that the more similarities we can connect with each other, then the differences aren't so sharp.

Leeya Chaudhuri: That was Oberlin Village; this is Leeya Chaudhuri. Thanks for listening. Written, produced and mixed by Leeya Chaudhuri. All music by Jacob Harrenstein. Recorded at Eagle Production Studios at Enloe High School.

Anisa Khalifa: When we come back from the break, Leeya tells us how she went about uncovering her neighborhood's past — and what telling this story means to her.

Welcome back to The Broadside. I’m Anisa Khalifa. Student reporter Leeya Chaudhuri recently came to our studios in Durham to talk to me about the making of her Oberlin Village podcast. She was joined by her high school audio production teacher and mentor Brian Hedgepeth.

Brian Hedgepeth: My name is Brian Hedgepeth. I am the TV and audio production teacher at Enloe High School, also the arts department chair and just super excited to be here.

Anisa Khalifa: So firstly, how did it feel to be finalists for the NPR podcast challenge, and can you tell me a little bit about what that process was like?

Leeya Chaudhuri: Honestly, the first thing I thought about was how Oberlin village would get national recognition. And I was really happy about that, because I think this is such an important story to be told. And I was just happy that more people would get to know about it.

Brian Hedgepeth: We've had such incredible feedback about, wow, thank you for opening up this window into the past that really should be probably in textbooks, you know, especially for us as local residents. So I feel awesome to even have contributed a little bit to Leeya's incredible research and production.

Anisa Khalifa: So you both mentioned the audio production program at Enloe High School. I know when most people think of high school journalism classes, they think of newspapers, right. But this is definitely something beyond that. Brian, how common are audio documentary programs like this?

Brian Hedgepeth: I feel like in English classrooms, and maybe in some science classrooms, there's been interest in teachers starting to use podcasts as an alternative to essay writing, or as a way to engage differently with content and material. I think what stands out for our program is that we focus on the audio production side. And my goal as the program advisor is to give students that long term project time window.

Anisa Khalifa: Leeya, you didn’t work on this alone. You collaborated with fellow student Jacob Harrenstein. He wrote and performed the soundtrack for the version that was entered into the NPR contest. How did that collaboration happen?

Leeya Chaudhuri: So when I was looking at this challenge, we were looking through the rules, and we realized that you cannot use any music from outside sources. And I was like, oh, my gosh, like, what are we going to do, because I had made a podcast with music already. And then I realized I was like, we have amazing musicians in this class. So as Mr. Hedgepeth mentioned, you can announce at the beginning of the class if you need music, and I Jacob had shared in class, and I was really impressed with his music. And I also remembered it would be perfect for the podcast, because he did a lot of acoustic guitar, he did a lot of kind of like, jazzy like blues pieces.

So I felt it would really match the mood of the podcast. He was so generous, he sent me his entire file of music. And so it was like I was going on an archive on Google, because there were like, 30, like 40 music pieces. And there was one for like, every mood. Honestly, like the music was so good, it got to one point where I was like, I don't know what music to use, I had way too many options.

Brian Hedgepeth: And then we also in this idea of like, the collaborative environment that we're trying to hold together, both with me as the teacher and advisor and amongst the students themselves, we set up organizational positions, we have like executive producers, and we have a PR department. And so we really try to make it like a professional experience.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Yes.

Brian Hedgepeth: With plenty of room to fail, because that's the most important part of the learning process.

Leeya Chaudhuri: And for fun, there's a lot of fun at that class too, like doughnuts, and, you know, seeing very cool pieces that people make. So it's a very fun class too.

Anisa Khalifa: Sounds amazing. Sounds like a class I would have loved to take.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Yep.

Anisa Khalifa: When did you realize that you had something special?

Brian Hedgepeth: We do sharing sessions with my audio class, and after months of toiling away, and her being like, I can't share yet, I can't share yet. And she finally shared in the class was like, did you really make that? like, just they were like, This is professional level, like super high quality, and they, they, you know, they're like, We don't have any suggestions, you know, which is pretty rare, because their students are have lots of opinions and critiques

Anisa Khalifa: What impact do you hope that this project will have?

Leeya Chaudhuri: The main thing that I want people to take away from this podcast is I want them to listen to it, be able to know the history of Oberlin Village. Hopefully, they're able to learn a little bit about that in the eight minutes. And then honestly, just be able to tell maybe one of their friends or family members, Hey, I just listened to this podcast. And I just learned about this community in North Carolina that did, blah, blah, blah. And then more people can learn about it.

And then I think the second thing is, the history of America is built on the backs of so many people. I think the US is so great, because we have this tapestry of all these rich communities. And so I would love for another student to hear about someone telling their local history and maybe get inspired to tell their own local history or go interview one of their family members and learn about their ancestors' history.

Brian Hedgepeth: You can tell the stories and you should invest the time in your ancestors and your communities and your cultures that resonate with you and that people want to hear it, they and they want to share it too, and how important it is for us to recognize those important aspects of our culture. And, you know, embrace these differences, these sharp points, I think, was from the final quote, right, and, like, find ways to, to hold on to them together. And I think, you know, Leeya's generation can really help us embrace those prickles.

Anisa Khalifa: My question for you was gonna be, are you gonna consider being a journalist in the future but I feel like you're already a journalist, so…

Brian Hedgepeth: The student has become the teacher already.

Anisa Khalifa: Brian and Leeya, Thank you so much for being with me here today.

Leeya Chaudhuri: Thank you so much for having me.

Brian Hedgepeth: Yeah, incredible experience. Thank you.

Anisa Khalifa: You can find a link to the extended version of Leeya's episodes of the Down 'Loe, Enloe's student podcast, in the show description. All of the music we used in this episode are original compositions by Jacob Harrenstein, who did the music for Leeya's podcast and kindly gave us permission to use it here.

This episode was produced by me, Anisa Khalifa. Our editor is Jerad Walker. Al Wodarski provided audio engineering support.

The Broadside is a production of North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or tell a friend to tell a friend! Thanks for listening, y'all. We'll be back next week.