As the red-hot debates over Confederate statues raged like dumpster fires across the American South in recent years – Richmond, Charlottesville and New Orleans come immediately to mind – cooler, more positive memorials have also taken root.
In Columbia, a progressive African-American tableau was installed on State Capitol Grounds in 2001, after the Confederate battle flag was removed from the statehouse dome. In Savannah, a statue of a slave family, freed from shackles and clad in contemporary clothing, was dedicated on River Street in 2002. And in Montgomery, construction is now underway for a museum dedicated to 4,000 victims of lynching during the Jim Crow era.
In Raleigh, once its $5 million price tag has been raised, a design by the Durham office of Perkins+Will for the North Carolina Freedom Park will offer an optimistic take on slavery and the African-American experience here. Slated for a postage-stamp-sized lot at the corner of Lane and Wilmington streets downtown, the park will be strategically located – opposite the legislative building and near the Governor’s Mansion and the city’s museum row.
It will be a park for all North Carolinians – especially the estimated 100,000 schoolchildren who make their annual pilgrimage to downtown Raleigh. Their buses park in a lot a few hundred yards away, so they’ll be walking on the park’s newly designed paths on their way to museums and government buildings. Inspirational messaging along those paths surely will have an impact on receptive young minds.
The park’s location near other, earlier statues has driven both its design and its inspiration. “The site was extremely influential,” says architect Michael Stevenson, with Perkins+Will. “The location is a constant reminder that we reflect on the totality of citizenry contributing to state history.”
Stevenson is the park’s project architect and no stranger to excellence in urban planning, or to merging indoor and outdoor spaces.
While working with KlingStubbins, Stevenson helped design the Food and Drug Administration headquarters in Washington, D.C., blending buildings and open space for 10,000 employees. More recently, he designed and renovated structures and courtyards for Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina in Durham. “I like to go outside and make the public spaces part of the buildings,” he says.
He’ll have ample opportunity for that with Freedom Park, as he assumes stewardship for a design that’s a product of architect Phil Freelon’s fertile imagination. Freelon, design director at Perkins+Will, triumphed in a 2016 architectural competition for the park’s landscape design, over architects from Brooklyn and Oakland. Unlike statues honoring the Confederate dead, hardly resonant with the black community, Freelon’s solution is uplifting and inspirational for all.
Freelon took his cues from legacy trees – the willow oaks, live oaks and hardwoods – growing on site. Referencing the rich earth and unseen roots below the surface, he drew metaphorically on the contributions of African-Americans toward building this state. It was a powerful part of his presentation to the competition jury.
“Phil talked about how all the little things made the big tree stand up,” says Reggie Hodges, chair of the park’s competition committee. “He said that the state had been built on the backs of people working as hard as they could in tobacco and cotton fields – and showed that it was the tree with roots in red clay that made this place strong.”
Metaphors aside, his design emphasized that series of paths that leading out to the most meaningful destinations in downtown Raleigh – the state’s centers for history, science and policy-making. The little site is sloped, so those paths will be walled, with inspirational quotations from influential North Carolinians inscribed into them. At the park’s center will be a three-dimensional, vertical element called Freedom Tower, designed to rise up and lead the eye and imagination toward the promise of the future.
We’re waiting for a large donor to make a major gift to guarantee that it’s going to happen. No one is opposed to it – everyone thinks it’s not only a worthwhile project, but a necessary project.
Attorney David Warren, head of the board tasked with raising money for Freedom Park
“It’s a kind of beacon – a symbol of aspiration and achievement and meant to create a new destination in Raleigh,” Freelon says. “It will be lit inside, offering elegance and prominence for this project.”
Toward the southern end of the site, the park faces the blank, windowless, north wall of the N.C. State Archives. Freelon calls for it to be transformed into a massive media wall. “It’ll be perfect for screenings of movies or other graphic elements, day or night,” he says.
A 14-member board, headed by attorney David Warren, is tasked with raising the $5 million needed to make the park a reality. An earlier, 35-member board, formed in 2004, included names like John Hope Franklin, William Friday and Maya Angelou. This new, leaner board, formed in 2015, is less about star power and more about finding the money to bring the park to life.
It is a slow process. The board has raised $140,000 at this point, with other promises and pledges of as much as $50,000 each. Warren believes that once a donor steps up with a pledge of $500,000 or more, others will quickly follow. “We’re waiting for a large donor to make a major gift to guarantee that it’s going to happen,” he says. “No one is opposed to it – everyone thinks it’s not only a worthwhile project, but a necessary project.”
That’s because, in no small part, of the genius of the Perkins+Will design. It may tell the story of North Carolina’s African Americans – but it’s a vessel that carries a message for all Americans. “Freedom depends upon everyone having freedom – not some oppressed and some free,” says board secretary Vicky Gallagher.
In that regard, it’s inclusive in a way that Confederate statues were never meant to be, and extremely valuable as a stark contrast to its 19th-century counterparts. For those reasons, Raleigh’s monuments to the Confederacy should remain in place permanently, potent reminders of what the worst elements of the Lost Cause were really about. As a native Richmonder once quipped to me, “Unmitigated gall is divided into three parts: greed, stupidity and cruelty.”
What Raleigh needs right now is an inspired donor – either an individual or a corporation – to step boldly up, write a generous check and counter those colossal, late-19th-century wrongs.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications, and edits a digital design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com. He is the author of “Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand (Routledge: 2015). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.