This story was originally published on August 14, 2019.
On the evening of July 31, Pierce Freelon took the stage at the Hayti Heritage Center during a spoken-word concert in memory of his father, the celebrated Durham architect Phil Freelon, who died on July 9 after a three-year struggle with ALS. He was sixty-six.
Pierce was joined by Nnenna Freelon, who is his mother and Phil’s wife of forty years. Though regal as always, wearing a navy-blue African dress, Nnenna, a six-time Grammy nominee, appeared tentative until she began to sing.
I told Jesus it would be all right if he change my name …
She started the song in an almost conversational tone that increased in intensity each time she repeated the line.
I told Jesus it would be all right if he change my name …
At times her voice would soar up to stirring heights, then drop down into a dark, lonely place that spoke of a deep hurt.
I told Jesus it would be all right if he change my name …
Then her singing gave way to low, soulful moan while her son spoke about “God being a strong Black woman.” Before leaving the stage, Nnenna looked upward and stretched her beaming face and open hands to the heavens.
“In the African-American tradition, we say, ‘Every goodbye ain’t gone,’” Nnenna says, adding that the veil between the world of the living and the ancestors is thin and that we allow our loved ones to live on by continuing their body of work and spirit. Nnenna says that her youngest son, Pierce—who last week announced that he is running for North Carolina’s State Senate—has vowed to continue his father’s good works and service.
Phil was still alive when Nnenna decided she was going to perform at the concert. In the days after his passing, she struggled with that decision. It was a chance to “step my toe into the waters of a public expression,” she says.
“It was good for me and good for the public to see what grief looked like in that moment,” Nnenna continues. “I chose that song because there are a couple of times in life that changes your name. When we get married, when we have children, and when you lose someone. To go from wife to widow, or husband to widower. I was seeking inside that song the spiritual strength to bear that name change.”
“Yesterday was a good day for her,” Pierce says the next day, sitting in a conference room at Blackspace in Durham, a youth-arts venture he founded. “She was uncertain as to whether or not she would be able to perform, and then it ended up being a very healing moment for her. Grief can take a lot of different forms, and for our family, art is a tool to process and heal.”
It’s apt that the event was held at Hayti, an African-American cultural center that was formerly St. Joseph’s Church. Pierce says the connection between art, faith, and worship was the reason why his parents transformed a Gothic Revival church in Old North Durham, which once served parishioners with hearing impairments, into NorthStar Church of the Arts earlier this year. More than just a venue, NorthStar is a sanctuary that recognizes the “sacred bond between art and spirituality.
“Phil said, ‘If you want something, you have to give the same thing,’” Nnenna says. “If you want love, you have to give love. If you want peace, you have to give peace. If you want healing, you have to give healing.”
And first and foremost, Phil Freelon was an artist.
The tall, patrician, athletic, and soft-spoken man used a drafting table and a pen to create a legacy of public buildings that will inspire generations not yet born, most notably by leading the design team of the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. But what he built in his family and in Durham is just as important as what he built for the world. Pierce will tell you that his dad’s legacy is so much bigger than any building he designed.
Pierce grew up in a home saturated with Black music. His father loved James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, and Sly and the Family Stone. At home, as in the world, he built.
“There’s a saying around the house that he can fix anything,” Pierce says. “He would dismantle and put bikes together. He liked the challenge of figuring out how it worked. He didn’t like instructions and manuals. I think that was part of how he viewed the world, and that was ingrained in his parenting style.”
Pierce remembers when he was sixteen years old and wanted to get ear piercings and a tattoo. His uncle and his cousins had tattoos, so it wasn’t unheard of.
“He didn’t say no,” Pierce says. “He offered me an alternative. He said, ‘If you wait until you’re twenty-one, I’ll get one with you, and I’ll pay for it. But I’ll bet that in waiting, you’ll find that whatever you want to put on your body right now won’t be the same when these things are permanent.’ As soon as I turned eighteen, I wouldn’t have needed his permission, but the prospect of him getting a tattoo was an offer I couldn’t refuse. He was putting up the canvas of his body as collateral!”
“On my twenty-first birthday,” Pierce continues, “I told him, ‘Dad, I have no idea what I wanted on my arm at sixteen. It was probably some barbed wire or a snake. Whatever it was, I don’t want it anymore. So you got me. The lesson around permanence has been ingrained.’”
Leading by example was Phil Freelon’s favored form of guidance and discipline. Whenever Pierce or his siblings misbehaved, he would remind them, “Freelons don’t do that,” powerfully invoking “a community of ancestors who are outraged by your shenanigans.”
“There is Phil Freelon the person, the human, the drummer, the photographer, the father, the husband,” says Pierce, who was holding his father’s hand when he died. “That is the pyramid, the monument, the obelisk of his legacy.”
Phil Freelon was born and raised in Philadelphia. The home he shared with his parents and siblings was filled with art. His grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon, was an Impressionist painter during the Harlem Renaissance, and his grandchildren regularly visited his studio.
Freelon’s parents noticed his interest in drawing and assembling things and encouraged it. His father was a traveling salesman for a medical-equipment company.
“He would come back with a model of a car that I would assemble, or a battleship, or even things that required more creativity and imagination,” Freelon said in the 2017 N.C. State University Libraries oral history about him that provides quotes for this story. “I was fortunate to be in a family where I was surrounded by the arts and was able to be inspired by that.”
Freelon attended Central High School in Philadelphia, a public school focused on the arts that attracted drawing students from all over the city. He took classes in design, art, and drafting, realized he was drawn to architecture, and decided to become an architect. He enrolled at Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, a historically Black college, after high school.
It was the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement, along with growing assertions of Black Power and Black Pride, was at a high point.
“There was pride in heritage in the 1960s, not that it wasn’t there before,” Freelon said. “But it was the Black Power movement, the music, the clothing. I wore an Afro. In some ways, we are in a similar time period now, with a heightened awareness of racial tension and inequity.”
Hampton had an accredited architectural program, and Freelon finally met a real architect, Liberian-born John Henri Spencer, who was chairman of the department. Freelon, barely into his sophomore year, was already tutoring fifth-year students, and the college professor took the “unusual and unselfish” step of encouraging Freelon to transfer to a bigger school after observing his drafting skills.
Freelon transferred to N.C. State, where he took graduate-level courses as an undergraduate and received the school’s top design award in 1975, when he earned his degree. Then, he earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. Nnenna was in Cambridge at the same time, studying at Simmons College. But the two did not meet until they were both in North Carolina.
It turned out that the future couple had mutual friends, a married couple who were living in the Triangle. It was on their friends’ front porch, on July 7, 1978, that they first met. They talked all night. Phil told Nnenna he wanted to be a father.
“It could have been a deal-breaker!” says Nnenna, who was twenty-two at the time. The young architect told her about his own father being a great dad, and memories of riding on his shoulders, being lavished with love and attention.
“He wanted that,” Nnenna says. “He was the best dad and a fun dad. All three of our children have that shine because of a dad who loved them.”
Nnenna says she and her husband were like “a key and a lock” when they met. “It’s like we were destined.”
At the time, Nnenna had no intention of pursuing the singing career that would eventually bring her six Grammy nominations. She was eyeing instead a career as a public health administrator. But she says Phil encouraged her in a way that “wasn’t in words only, it was love in action.”
“There was no question in his mind that I would achieve what I needed to achieve in my life,” she says. “People ask, ‘What’s your secret?’ My secret is, ‘Marry well. Don’t be with someone who whispers doubt in your life.’”
One year later, in October 1979, they married. Pierce says his parents’ marriage was “one of purpose.”
“They met in ‘78, married in ‘79, had Deen in ‘80, Maya in ‘81, and me in ‘82,” he says. “They just hit the ground running!”
Freelon returned to the Triangle in 1978 to work with Durham architect John Latimer and landed a job teaching at his alma mater’s school of design. He enjoyed teaching and applied for a full-time tenured position in 1980. But he was not offered a tenure-track position, and school officials did not give him “an acceptable answer,” he said, for not hiring him to teach full-time.
“I left in disgust,” said Freelon, who later added that the school of design still had a dearth of Black faculty members more than thirty-five years later.
Freelon accepted a job offer with 3D/International, a large architectural firm in Houston, where he and his wife’s first two children were born. In 1982, John Atkins, who had worked with Freelon at Latimer, asked him if he wanted return to North Carolina to work with O’Brien-Atkins, a firm he had started seven years before with Bill O’Brien. At first, Freelon declined, but it started a conversation with his wife about concerns over raising a family in a large city. He called Atkins back a month later and took the job. During his seven-year stint with the firm, Freelon was named a vice-president and helped it grow from thirty members to one hundred fifty.
In 1989, at the age of thirty-five, Freelon applied for a prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. Nnenna was just starting her singing career and had accepted a visiting artist position in Brunswick County with the N.C. Arts Council.
“It was tremendous,” Freelon said. “She got to sing for the first time, and our youngest had just started kindergarten. We lived on the beach for a year.”
In late 1989, Freelon decided to leave O’Brien-Atkins and start his own firm.
“Nnenna and I were like, ‘Let’s go for it,’” he said. “She didn’t hesitate. She said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this’ … We were willing to cut back on some things, and she was starting to earn some income for her singing, and I was confident we would not be in a deficit for long. I was confident in my ability to grow and cultivate the practice, and that happened very quickly.”
Pierce remembers the change in family dynamics when his mom signed a recording contract with a major label, Columbia Records, in 1992.
“Dad told her, ‘Do what you love.’ She made the bold choice to step into music, and we see how that story is going,” Pierce says, who is also a musician, with projects such as hip-hop jazz band The Beast. “They worked together to lift each other up. Mom in the ‘80s was singing at Hayti and Bimbe and learning the American songbook. By 1990, my dad had started his architectural firm, and in 1992, my mom had signed and was going on world tours. We would eat beef enchiladas every day while she was gone, because dad only knew two or three recipes. She was working and we were cheering her on. … They kept climbing together.”
By 2014, the Freelon Group was a sixty-member firm when it was acquired by Perkins+Will, a global architectural firm.
“Dad’s favorite quote was ‘architecture is frozen music,’ and it made complete sense,” Pierce says. “My dad was frozen music. Mom is fluid music—same source material, water, in different phases.”
Housed at N.C. State Library’s Special Collections section, the Phil Freelon Papers, 1975–2018 contains his architectural drawings, voluminous project files, and architectural records that document his work in this area, including Hillside High School, the Diamond View Office Building, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Durham Police Department, the east terminal of Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Hope Valley Elementary, the Hill Center, and others.
“The Durham Bulls Athletic Park is one of the first really memorable buildings that my dad created,” Pierce says. “I have so many fond memories of that structure, so many foul balls, so many little kids scrambling to try and catch them, so many mouthfuls of cotton candy, so many songs and chants and laughter and cheers and fun and pride in the Bull City. He is responsible for so much of that—the ease with which you get in the building, the concession stands, everything. The spirit of it. His soul is in that structure, and how about that?”
The collection also chronicles work that Freelon designed throughout North Carolina and the United States, including college buildings, libraries, cultural arts centers, and historic parks. The one thing that Phil Freelon didn’t build, though, were prisons—those dismal industrial structures which are little more than landlocked slave ships in this era of mass incarceration. Those kinds of complexes stand in stark contrast to his life-affirming designs.
“And believe me, there is lots of money in designing [prisons],” Nnenna says. “He really, really believed people deserved beautiful spaces to be in, light and airy spaces that should say, ‘welcome.’”
In 2017, when Fast Company named Freelon its Architect of the Year, writer Diana Budds described him as the designer “of nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to Black culture in the United States: the National 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.”
Those museums are akin to modern-day pyramids that pay tribute to African Americans and others who struggled and sometimes gave their lives to move this country forward. In downtown Atlanta, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights’ exterior presents two multi-shaded walls that curve inward toward each other. The design symbolizes the links that “connect and empower” disparate individuals and groups, according to the architecture website ArchDaily.
Torrie Shepard, a center spokesperson, told the INDY that the design reminds her of a woman’s hands, and its earth-tone shadings represent the women of the world.
“It shows the power of people and what we can accomplish when we stick together,” she said.
Unquestionably, Freelon’s masterpiece is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, located on the National Mall, just across from the Washington Monument.
The monument was first proposed by Black Civil War veterans more than one hundred years ago. The building’s design was inspired by the three-tiered corona used in Yoruban art by the Nigerian people of West Africa. Two hundred fifty thousand square feet of surface presents a latticework fashioned from bronze-colored aluminum panels that recall the bronze art of the ancient Benin Empire and the ironworks created by African Americans throughout the South.
A tour of the museum beckons visitors on a journey of historical galleries and exhibits that tell a vast story of African-American slavery and freedom, struggle and resistance, ingenuity and achievement.
Phil Freelon was a pole vaulter and hurdler in high school. He ran five miles each day as an adult. Then his run began to slow. His right ankle started bothering him. Following a battery of medical tests, he was diagnosed with ALS in March 2016, six months before his Smithsonian museum officially opened.
“I’m like, ‘You are kidding. That can’t be the truth,’” Nnenna remembers thinking.
The couple looked for alternative treatments. Freelon underwent medical trials at the Duke ALS Clinic, which seemed promising. But the illness grew worse as he lost the ability to walk, speak, and swallow. Nnenna remembers the transitions he was forced to make from cane to walker, scooter to wheelchair, finally needing a breathing device and neck braces. She says her husband’s decision to join his ancestors came when the doctors said they could extend his life with the use of a feeding tube after he was no longer able to swallow.
“We said ‘no,’” Nnenna says. “He did not want that.”
Shortly before his dad died, Pierce finally got a tattoo. He rolled up his left shirt sleeve to display a three-dimensional pyramid.
“That’s my dad’s first logo of The Freelon Group, 1990,” he says. “He was here when I got it. He loved it. He said, ‘It looks good.’ I told him, ‘I know it looks good. You designed it!’”
When Pierce was a kid, he thought the symbol was merely a triangle, but before his father died, he explained to his son that the pyramids are of African origins, and the ancient structures speak to the African origins of science, mathematics, and architecture.
Pierce’s discovery is a fitting coda for his father’s legacy. In 2003, when Phil delivered the commencement address for the N.C. State College of Design, he told the graduates, “I want to first say that we are designers. In my view, design is not only a process and a way of thinking, it is a way of life.”
Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to email@example.com.
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