To quote the Atlanta poet Shaun Henderson: Creation is perfect.

That sentiment is especially true in the architectural sphere of Philip Freelon.

Freelon died Tuesday, at the age of sixty-six, after a three-year struggle with ALS. He joined the ancestors much too soon, but he left behind a body of work that will be studied and admired for generations to come. In 2017, when Fast Company named Freelon its Architect of the Year, writer Diana Budd described him as the designer “of nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States: the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Motown Museum in Detroit and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.”

And then there was his masterpiece: the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.

“He’s unquestionably the most influential African American architect practicing today,” Budd wrote.

I first encountered the Freelons in the early eighties, when I was barely out of college and a badly misguided twentysomething who managed to land a job at a group home on Trinity Street.

They were my neighbors, and although I didn’t see Phil much, his wife, Nnenna, was a constant presence. That was especially true in the late mornings and early afternoons, when she would place her freshly painted artwork on easels in the front yard of their rather ramshackle two-story home next door to the group home.

Both she and her husband were always friendly, gracious, and down to earth, even as their stars were beginning to shine. 

I remember when Nneena started making the rounds—first singing at a few nightspots, eventually emerging as the Triangle’s premier jazz vocalist and becoming a celebrated Grammy nominee whose voice is heard across the country. Around the same time, Phil was quietly building his own legacy, starting in Durham. 

By the 1990s, it was a challenge to visit Durham and not see a building that was not designed by Phil Freelon, who graduated from N.C. State in 1975 and donated his papers to his alma mater in 2015. 

The Phil Freelon Papers, 1975–2018, contains his architectural drawings, voluminous project files, and architectural records that document his work here: Hillside High School, the Diamond View Office Building, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Durham Police Department, the city’s solid waste facility, Hope Valley Elementary, the Hill Center, along with the Lake Johnson Boat House and the N.C. Old Revenue Building in Raleigh.

The Freelons raised three children who are pretty amazing in their own right. (Pierce, the founder of Blackspace, ran quite respectably for mayor a couple of years ago.) They could have rested on their laurels. But they never stopped giving back to their community, and they were always gracious in their giving.

In her piece, the writer Budd noted that the week she spoke with Phil Freelon, he was visiting a low-income elementary school to talk with students about his profession, and he’d spoken earlier that week with his grandson’s second-grade class.

“You look at music and sports and you have all these great examples of African Americans who have had a transcendent impact on other professions, but not architecture,” Freelon had told her. “Where’s our Miles Davis? Our Barack Obama? It’s because there isn’t critical mass. The profession, in general, is missing out on a potentially deep pool of talent and the world is missing out on great ideas and buildings that could be happening by virtue of that infusion of energy and creativity that we see in music or dance or almost any other profession.”

I last saw the couple together in late February 2017 in downtown Raleigh, when Phil announced that his firm, Perkins+Will, was going to try to complete the perennially stalled N.C. Freedom Park to honor the contributions of African Americans in North Carolina.

Nneena, by then a six-time Grammy nominee, kicked off the luncheon with a medley of songs from the black tradition. “Songs past,” she told us. “Songs of struggle. Songs of triumph.”

Phil shared with us that he’d been diagnosed with ALS the year before. Even in the face of tragedy, he was giving. He told us he wanted to draw attention to the Duke ALS Clinic and the ongoing research to effectively treat the incurable illness. 

The Freelons were connected that day by the themes of love, community, and a purpose most of us there couldn’t even begin to fathom. Instead, we admired their strength in the face of adversity.

Phil Freelon shared a design vision informed by his belief that the African American’s history and culture helped form the state’s unique growth and development. The soft-spoken man offered a narrative that sought to recognize “the untold and forgotten contributions hidden under the surface of the state’s formal history,” as I wrote then for The News & Observer. And he likened the African American’s contributions to this state as part of a complex, subterranean root system that sustains a mighty oak tree.

“How often do we stop to consider the roots that make it all possible?” he asked.

In the decades to come, as people from all walks of life gaze at his architectural legacy here and across the country, we would all do well to recall the creative source and softly repeat those words: How often do we stop to consider the roots that make it all possible?

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Freelon was sixty-seven and died after a four-year battle with ALS. Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at 

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