As the nation commemorates the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., Raleigh’s memorial garden that honors the civil rights leader is off limits because it’s under construction.
But by this time next year, the 1-acre garden in Southeast Raleigh will be much larger – and a more welcoming educational and inspirational destination for visitors.
Raleigh’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department broke ground Nov. 18 to expand the site near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
No changes will be made to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Gardens centerpiece – a 6-foot-tall bronze statue of King believed to be the only one that depicts him in his doctorate clerical robe. Other features will also remain, including the King Memorial Wall of 2,500 bricks bearing names of individuals, churches, businesses and organizations.
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But the roughly $1 million expansion project will include restrooms, picnic shelters, additional parking and a large lawn area for events and gatherings.
Since it was unveiled in 1990, the memorial garden has been a source of pride and “disgrace,” said Eugene Weeks, a former member of the Raleigh City Council who represented Southeast Raleigh.
“There’s nowhere to sit, no restrooms,” Weeks said. “Just think: You’re a teacher and you bring your third- or fourth-graders there, and what do you see? A statue. We definitely wanted to see this expansion there, and the people of Raleigh wanted to see this expansion.
“It’s been five years in the making and, now, it’s coming to fruition. We’ll all be proud of the additions.”
The design includes ideas from a public leadership group made up of representatives of the Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, South Central Citizens Advisory Council, the parks and recreation advisory board, Wake County schools, Saint Augustine’s and Shaw universities, Community Advocates for Parks in Southeast Raleigh and an at-large member.
Consultants and city staff, as well as community voices shared during public meetings, joined the leadership group to develop the master plan for the project, which was adopted by the parks board and the City Council.
“With all the appropriate stakeholders at the table, the project process was more effective and efficient,” said Shawsheen Baker, a senior park planner for Raleigh.
The Rev. Dumas A. Harshaw Jr., chairman of the Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Committee, said it’s exciting to see the project move forward.
“It’s been a dream for some years ... for people to be able to gather there for educational purposes, for networking purposes, and for inspiration and critical dialogue,” said Harshaw, pastor at First Baptist Church in Raleigh.
“And it’s in the right place, the state capital,” Harshaw said. “We’re paying homage to the Martin Luther King freedom fighters that were part of the movement for justice and light and economic equity by expanding the gardens, and we’re doing it for more community participation and the best enlightenment of our young people.
“It’s a dream. It’s time for celebration.”
Corey Branch, who now represents Southeast Raleigh on the City Council, was in middle school when the gardens opened.
“I vividly remember the construction of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the Memorial Gardens, and I felt proud,” Branch said. “The memorial acts as an anchoring landmark that is easily recognizable.
“This expansion, while maintaining a historic connection for future generations learning about and appreciating the history of the community and the service of its members, is just one example of the growth yet to come to Southeast Raleigh.”
Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day
▪ The Triangle Martin Luther King Jr. Committee will host the following events Monday, Jan. 18:
36th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Triangle Interfaith Prayer Breakfast: 6 to 8 a.m., Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center, 4700 Emperor Blvd., Durham
“Fierce Urgency of Now” Memorial March: 11 a.m., State Capitol Building on Edenton Street to the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh
Ecumenical observance in partnership with Shaw University School of Divinity: noon, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
Evening musical celebration: 5:30 p.m., Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh
▪ The United Way of the Greater Triangle will host a Day of Service on Monday, Jan. 18, in which volunteers can help with 35 projects in Durham, Johnston, Orange and Wake counties. For more information or to sign up, go to unitedwaytriangle.org.
▪ Several churches and organizations in Wake Forest will host a free public celebration at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21, at 237 Friendship Chapel Road, Wake Forest. A light meal will be served at 6 p.m. and a program will begin at 7 p.m.