Phil Freelon’s legacy lives on in the North Carolina Freedom Park

Moving Forward

Phil Freelon’s legacy lives on in the North Carolina Freedom Park

The Beacon of Freedom will be at the center of the park. (Courtesy Perkins and Will)

On July 1, North Carolina governor Roy Cooper approved government funding for a new landscape in the heart of Raleigh designed by the late architect Phil Freelon’s team at Perkins and Will. Called the North Carolina Freedom Park, it will honor the African American experience.

Funding for the project had stalled along with the rest of the state’s budget in the Republican-controlled legislature, but after the nationwide Black Lives Matter–led protests following the killing of George Floyd in May, legislators approved a special mini-budget that included funding for the park. The project could break ground in the coming months.

It’s a major breakthrough for an initiative that has been in the works for years. The Paul Green Foundation, an organization created in memory of the Pulitzer Prize-winning North Carolinian playwright, whose work frequently focused on struggles for justice in a racist society, proposed the project in 2002. A board initially led by the late historian John Hope Franklin secured state approval for the park to occupy a one-acre site between the governor’s mansion and the state legislative building in 2011, and in 2016 the board issued a request for proposals for the park’s design.

“We did not want statues,” said Reginald Hodges, former executive director of the Durham Literacy Center and a member of the park’s board of directors. “We wanted ordinary people highlighted, and a view toward the future.”

Freelon’s team, from the Durham office of Perkins and Will, won with a design conceived as a kind of historical excavation exposing the buried histories and contributions of Black North Carolinians. The design features paths that cut through the landscape, bounded by retaining walls engraved with quotes “highlighting the Black struggle,” Hodges said.

Aerial site plan of a public park
The new park will share its downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, site with the existing Crime Victim Memorial Garden. (Courtesy Perkins and Will)

“Black contributions and the struggle for freedom have not been highlighted in Raleigh and North Carolina, in general,” Hodges said. “We see the park as a place where the contributions of African Americans in North Carolina and their struggle for freedom will be recognized and honored for their role in building our state.”

After Freelon won the project, plans for the park evolved to include a flame-shaped sculpture inspired by a quote from North Carolinian civic leader, activist, and editor Lyda Moore Merrick: “My father passed a torch to me, which I have never let go out.” The Beacon of Freedom, as the perforated metal sculpture will be called, will be fabricated by Denver-based studio Demiurge. It will stand in the center of the park surrounded by the engraved walls and plantings executed by Durham-based landscape architecture firm Surface 678.

Rendering of a yellow monument in a park
The park landscape’s retaining walls will feature historical quotes from various Black North Carolinians. (Courtesy Perkins and Will)

Freelon died in 2019, leaving the park in the care of Perkins and Will’s urban design leader in North Carolina, Michael Stevenson. The project will be one of Freelon’s last executed projects, a fitting cap for a career that shaped many of the country’s most significant spaces dedicated to celebrating African American culture.

“This park is about promoting an aspect of history that has not been as celebrated as it should’ve been,” Stevenson said. “Phil’s career was built on ideas about social justice and equity, and how architecture and design play a role in that. He believed that excellence in design was a critical aspect of promoting those ideas, and that people from all races and income levels deserved access to the best design and architecture have to offer. The Beacon will highlight that these struggles are ongoing.”

While the governor’s approval of state funding is a large boost for the project, the board is still looking for an additional $1 million from private sources. Assuming that the money is raised and there aren’t significant coronavirus-related delays, the board is hoping to open the park at the end of 2021.