Freedom Park to honor African Americans closer to reality

Published 5:42 pm Friday, November 1, 2019

By Martha Waggoner

Associated Press

RALEIGH — A gleaming abstract sculpture that’s lighted from within will be the centerpiece of a new park honoring the contributions of African Americans to North Carolina that’s been in the planning stages for more than a decade.

The state Historical Commission approved the new design for Freedom Park on Wednesday. The park will be located on a 1-acre site between the state Legislative Building and the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh.

Inspirational quotes by African Americans from North Carolina will be engraved on walls along walkways that lead to the 48-foot-tall Beacon of Freedom sculpture.

“Our public art and our public spaces define who we are as a society, as a community,” Freedom Park board member Reginald Hildebrand told the commission. “They proclaim what we believe, what we value and what we aspire to achieve. This will be especially true for Freedom Park.”

Plans for the park began in 2002, and an architect was chosen in 2004. But the Great Recession dampened fundraising, and supporters learned that potential donors found the design’s focus on slavery too depressing, board member Reginald Hodges said Wednesday.

The park’s board sought new proposals focused on uplifting designs in 2016, Hodges said. Phil Freelon of Durham, who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his firm, Perkins and Will, were chosen to design Freedom Park.

Months before the national museum opened, Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a degenerative neurological disease that leads to total paralysis. Despite the illness, he accepted the Freedom Park project. He died in July at the age of 66.

“It was our great hope that Phil Freelon would be able to be present for the groundbreaking and dedication,” Hildebrand said. “As you know, he passed recently at the height of his accomplishments with the Smithsonian museum and he could have done anything with the limited time he knew he had left. He chose to invest it in this project in North Carolina, his home.”

Contributions followed Freelon’s name and the new design. The proposed state budget includes $1.5 million for the park, provided that’s matched by $1.7 million in private donations. Park board member Kel Landis said in a telephone interview that the donations exceed the $1.7 million target.

The design includes no monuments; the walls carry no quotes from people outside North Carolina. The walls will be made of precast concrete and tinted to resemble the red clay of North Carolina, said architect Michael Stevenson of Perkins and Will.

One quote located in a prominent place is by John H. Wheeler, president of Mechanics & Farmers Bank from 1952 to 1978 and a founder of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs: “The battle for freedom begins every morning.”

“We think that really sets the tone as you enter the park,” Stevenson said.

Meanwhile, the beacon will be designed in a shiny metallic so that it’s lighted from both the inside and the outside, he said. As it reaches toward the sky, it will represent “a brighter future for everybody,” he said.

A groundbreaking for the park is planned for December. Stevenson estimated that completing it will take about a year.