- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 7, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - An illuminated piece of public art called Beacon of Freedom will be built in downtown Raleigh as part of the first state monument to the African American experience in North Carolina.

While there are many statues celebrating the accomplishments of white people in the area around the state Capitol, the first to celebrate Black North Carolinians broke ground on Wednesday.

North Carolina Freedom Park will be built on Lane Street, on the block between the governor’s mansion and the Legislative Building. The state has never had a Black governor.

The park is due to be completed by 2022.

At the park’s center will be the orange, metal Beacon of Freedom, which will be illuminated at night. Walkways around it will offer places to gather and reflect, and the paths will have inscribed quotes from Black North Carolinians.

The park will keep some of what is already there: the North Carolina Victim Assistance Network’s Crime Victims’ Memorial Garden, which includes a plaque and flowers that brought a few yellow butterflies to the midday ceremony.

The event had a limited number of people and press, and everyone wore masks. The only state legislator there was state Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat. Local elected officials were Durham City Council member Pierce Freelon and Raleigh City Council member Corey Branch.

“In challenging, troubling times, some might question the value of constructing symbols and public art,” said historian and Freedom Park board member Reginald Hildebrand. But they are not unimportant, he said, because public art and public spaces “reflect who we are as a society, as a community. They proclaim what we believe and what we aspire to achieve. They illuminate what and who we value.”

Hildebrand said the “flame of freedom that lit the soul of every slave still burns in all of us.”

He said the Beacon of Freedom, which will be 40 feet (12.2 meters) tall, will be a powerful, iconic symbol of the state. “This little light of mine, let it shine,” he said, repeating the religious song’s refrain: “let it shine.”

He alluded to recent protests following the police killing of George Floyd that have ended in violence.

“That light will keep our eyes on the prize, and will not confuse random acts of destruction and violence with a determined march toward freedom. 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,” he said.

Years in the planning and getting the final hurdle of $1.5 million in funding from the General Assembly this summer, Freedom Park was designed by the late architect Phil Freelon and firm Perkins & Will of Durham, who also was one of the architects of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture on the National Mall in Washington. Total public and private funding is $3.2 million, with fundraising still going.

Freelon’s son, Pierce Freelon, said he hopes Freedom Park will be a beacon to other states in the South to do the same.

Freelon mentioned Durham protesters pulling down the Confederate statue in downtown Durham in 2017, and then protesters pulling down the “Silent Sam” statue on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in 2018.

“Young Black folks are at an interesting juncture in this country as it relates to accountability and civil rights and justice and this is one of the ways that they are venting their frustration, is by tearing down these relics of white supremacy which are so prevalent throughout the state of North Carolina,” Freelon said. “And I am so excited that now we have something to put up. It’s one thing to pull something down, but what are we going to build to replace those monuments?”

The state funding of the park, which includes pathways and public art, was tied up in the 2019 budget battle between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led legislature. Cooper vetoed the budget, which included funding of Freedom Park as well as $2.5 million for a monument to African Americans on the state Capitol grounds. The funding was revived in a bill during the short session this year, but Republicans withdrew funding for the Capitol monument the weekend after protesters brought down statues commemorating the Confederacy.

Freedom Park’s funding passed in a bill overnight on June 26.

Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican and the House’s top budget writer who supported the project, said it was “a little shocking that something like Freedom Park was not already a part of our state.”

Saine, who was not at the ceremony, told The News & Observer that Freedom Park “is an addition to what the capital city has to offer in terms of learning about the people, struggles and successes of the people who have shaped our state.”

Murdock was part of the park’s plans before she ran for office. She started as project coordinator in 2017.

It has been in a number of budgets, she said, including when Gov. Bev Perdue was in office, but was part of budget cuts. She said that the project was conceived 10 years ago, then redesigned three years ago.

Murdock, who said she can trace her family history to enslaved people in Orange County, said it was important for this monument to be in Raleigh.

Cooper attended the groundbreaking, walking over from the Executive Mansion a block away.

“The history books often fail to acknowledge contributions and struggles of people of color,” Cooper said. “I imagine the school children who will one day come here to see the Beacon of Freedom and draw inspiration from the words of activists such as Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Ella Baker, Pauli Murray and Goldie Frinks and of course the poetry of Maya Angelou, and so many others.”

Senate Republicans sent out a news release complaining that they weren’t invited and noting that Republicans put forth the mini budget bill after the funding was vetoed in the overall budget in 2019.

Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gaston County Republican and budget writer, said in a statement, “It’s unfortunate that organizers turned this into a political event by declining to invite Republicans, but this project is an important acknowledgment of the critical contributions made by Black North Carolinians over the past several hundred years.”

While there hasn’t been state funding passed for the state Capitol monument to African Americans, that doesn’t mean the project is dead.

Michele Walker of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources said it is just on hold, and will be designed once the state provides the funding.

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