Organizers talk 2021 plan for Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- The Independence Day celebrations of 2020 vary from community to community, primarily due to coronavirus concerns. But Black scholars in Raleigh tell ABC11 the Fourth of July has special significance for those with deep ancestral roots in North Carolina.

"One hundred fifty-five years ago today, as the Civil War just ended, was the first time that people who had been slaves could claim for themselves the words of the Declaration of Independence," said Reginald Hildebrand, a member of the board for the NC Freedom Park planned for the corner of Wilmington and Lane Streets. "That they are entitled to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' So on that day, formerly enslaved people from fifteen, twenty miles around, came to Raleigh to celebrate their first anniversary of the nation's freedom. And there was a grand procession that marched through these streets. Past the governor's mansion, to the grounds of what was then known then as The Peace Institute. There was a ceremony and a program there at which the Declaration of Independence was read.

"An account that appeared in the AME Recorder newspapers said that 'The response of the people assembled was deafening applause.' At that moment, those people not only understood, they felt the meaning of freedom as powerfully as any of the founding fathers of this nation. In fact, more profoundly. And that is the basis of this monument. What happened was that their hopes on that day for freedom and equality were very soon crushed, brutally and violently. But what they did, and what this Freedom Park will symbolize, was that they kept their eyes on the prize."

"The Beacon of Freedom, which will be a towering, inspiring central element of this park, is an indication of what they always kept their eyes on," Hildebrand said. "And what this park is about is to say that the people who understood the meaning and the value of freedom, who understood better than anyone else, that you could not take it for granted. Who understood that the battle for freedom was ongoing, and that you had to persevere through adversity, the voices, the experiences, the moral authority of those people will be part of this park ."

It's designed by the late architect Phil Freelon, who also designed the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

"He chose to make this one of his last projects when he knew it would be one of his last projects," Hildebrand said. "That a man of such stellar talent, who could have spent that time working on anything anywhere, decided that this project was worth his time and the time of his firm gives special meaning to us. Of course, we had hoped that he would have been here for the groundbreaking and the ribbon cutting. But his spirit will be part of this."

State lawmakers approved more than a million dollars of support from North Carolina for the non-profit group building the park, and their fundraising efforts continue with about $1.9 million in donations so far.

Hildebrand said, "The people of North Carolina, in addition to recognizing the value of the words and the witness of the people who'd been enslaved recognize that they have something to say. To the South and the rest of the nation, about what it means to be a Southerner in the 21st century. About the history that they are now prepared to embrace, and confront, and learn from.

"This park will be our gift to future generations. It will be our legacy."

Tentative plans call for a groundbreaking ceremony in the fall, with the park opening in 2021.

"No one can speak for the need of freedom with greater power and authority than the people who've been denied it, and their descendants."

Check here for more information or to donate towards the building of the park.
Copyright © 2020 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.