As Confederate statues continue to topple, the centerpiece of North Carolina’s first monument to honor the African American experience has finally been erected in Freedom Park, just one block from the state’s capitol building in downtown Raleigh.

“This monument makes an important statement about freedom from [the perspective of] the Black experience in a way that hasn’t been done before,” says Reginald Hildebrand, a member of the Freedom Park Board of Directors.

The park will offer visitors a space to gather to reflect on history and celebrate the future, and while the remainder of the park is still just shy of a year away from completion, the installation of the 40-foot-tall metal structure dubbed the Beacon of Freedom is a major milestone for the project.

“It took us years and years to raise the $6.5 million that we needed,” explains Marsha Warren, who has been with the project since its inception and is one of the founding members of the advisory board for Freedom Park.

Warren is the former director of the Paul Green Foundation. In 2000 the foundation had come to the realization that North Carolina was in need of a monument to honor and celebrate the African American experience unique to the state, a realization that ultimately catalyzed the decades-long process of what has now become Freedom Park.

The beacon, along with the rest of the monument, was designed by renowned architect Phil Freelon of Perkins & Will in 2016, shortly after his team completed the recently dedicated Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Freelon was chosen to design the park to be “a testament of Truth about our past and a beacon of Optimism about our future,” according to the Freedom Park board’s website. The acclaimed architect died from ALS in 2019.

But even after choosing an architect and acquiring the necessary funding for the park project, several unforeseen delays occurred, further pushing back the park’s completion.

At one point a major steam pipe was found to be buried below the site, and shortly thereafter, an archeological site was discovered during the dig, unearthing remains of the home of Thomas Devereux Hogg, a businessman who had enslaved 18 people. The site was then contained and excavated by state archeologists.

“It just took a long time,” Warren admits. But she is pleased to have come so far.

Reginald Hodges, chair of the construction committee on the Freedom Park Board of Directors, has been on the project since 2004.

“When [Freelon] started putting together what the beacon could look like, he had several different interpretations,” Hodges says, turning to admire the towering beacon standing before him. “I’m really glad that we chose for the two points to be going in similar directions. [Freelon] said that if you’re going to do a symbolism of a flame, a flame comes out in different directions, but ultimately that doesn’t reflect unity. What we have here shows you the flame, but it also shows you unity.

“The symbolism of this is the flame that burns in Black people to be free, which has been passed on from generation to generation. That’s what it means.”

Hodges fell quiet, letting his words settle in.

Along the walls surrounding the beacon will be 140 molded panels that will have inscribed on them quotes from African Americans, beginning from as early as the 1700s and running all the way up until 2020, the last of the quotes being “I can’t breathe,” by George Floyd.

“When people talk about this being a park that honors the African American struggle for freedom, that’s probably the wrong way of saying it,” Hodges continues. “More accurately, this park is honoring Black North Carolinians.”

“Everyone depicted in here is a North Carolinian, George Floyd included; he was from Fayetteville,” Hodges explains. “There’s going to be a quote on the wall that reads, ‘The struggle for freedom begins every morning.’ You didn’t need great people to make quotes like that.”

Hodges says the board members wanted to make sure some of the quotes were very simple “so that younger students coming in could understand the meaning on the wall.”

Warren seconds the importance the monument will have on educating students.

“This is about the schoolkids who come to Raleigh every year to study North Carolina history,” she says. “We wanted to level the playing field. You have the old capitol grounds with [statues of] white supremacist governors and Confederate soldiers, while more than 25 percent of our kids who come here are African American.”

In the past five years, fervent national movements have demanded the removal of Confederate monuments, with 73 removed or renamed last year alone.

While these movements in themselves don’t rectify a long history of paying homage to slaveholders, there is hope in that the construction of monuments such as Freedom Park will allow for new generations to better grapple with the nation’s tumultuous past, bringing unity where there is division.

As advisers and board members stand below a canopy of 200-year-old oaks at the future site of Freedom Park, Hildebrand speaks with conviction.

“Our call is to make sure that the torch that is symbolized by that beacon never goes out. That the struggle for freedom continues. When people come to this park they’re not just learning about history, although they are, but that they are also being inspired for what will go on in the future.”

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