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New park will honor ‘the African American struggle for freedom in North Carolina’

On Wednesday afternoon, a small group gathered at the corner of Lane Street and Wilmington Street in downtown Raleigh to break ground on North Carolina Freedom Park. The park, which is projected to be completed by 2022, will honor “the African American struggle for freedom in North Carolina and the ideal of liberty for all,” according to a press release.

“The desire for freedom is universal, but all North Carolinians have not had the same access to it. The history books often fail to acknowledge contributions and struggles of people of color,” said Gov. Roy Cooper at the groundbreaking ceremony. “And this park is a critical step toward authentically telling the story of our state’s rich history.”

The park has been years in the making. Its design came from the late Phil Freelon of Perkins+Will, who was also the chief architect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. In July, the General Assembly allocated $1.5 million in funding for the park. The park has also received funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, the State Employees Credit Union Foundation, and others.

The park’s location between the legislature and the governor’s mansion places it in an area of Raleigh that many North Carolina students visit each year during field trips.

“It will serve as a source of instruction and inspiration for school children, and a source of encouragement now and for people of the future who may face challenges we can’t even imagine today,” said Reginald Hildebrand, a NC Freedom Park board member and historian.

The centerpiece of the park will be a tall sculpture called the Beacon of Freedom. It will be surrounded by other fixtures that celebrate the accomplishments of Black North Carolinians and reflect themes of freedom, perseverance, and equality.

“When they come to Freedom Park, they will learn that the people who tend to express the value of freedom most powerfully and convincingly and with the greatest moral authority are the people who were denied it most completely — the people who were slaves, and their descendants,” said Hildebrand. “Their words and their witness will serve as a reminder to anyone who may take freedom for granted.”

Pierce Freelon, son of Phil Freelon and a Durham city council member, spoke about his father’s vision to create a space that would honor the legacies and roots of Black people in North Carolina. He added that the park will be the first African American monument in the state.

“My prayer is that Freedom Park is not just a beacon for our people, but it’s a beacon to the state of North Carolina and to other states throughout the South,” said Freelon. “We need to bring up some new monuments in the South that really cherish and recognize the legacies and the power of the Black freedom struggle and the resiliency of all North Carolinians.”

Sen. Natalie Murdock, D-Durham, joined the North Carolina Freedom Park project in 2017. In closing remarks at the groundbreaking, Murdock said she can trace her family roots to slavery in Orange County.

“It means so much to me to have all of our rich history truly reflected in our capitol,” she said. “I serve as a state senator, and so I’m just elated to have this park right down the street, so that everyone knows we belong here and this is our state.”

After its completion, the park will be transferred to the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources for programming and maintenance. A public donation campaign has launched to help the park meet its total funding goal.

“Someday, people will be able to come to this place and look up and get for themselves a spark of that unquenchable fire of freedom because we here, this day, have committed to let it shine,” said Hildebrand.

Editor’s note: EducationNC receives support from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, Duke Energy Foundation, and the State Employees Credit Union Foundation.

Analisa Sorrells

Analisa Sorrells is a Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and previously worked as chief of staff and associate director of policy for EducationNC.