'Diversity is indeed our strength': Creation of Freedom Park in Raleigh honors North Carolina's Black heritage

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A groundbreaking service was held for North Carolina Freedom Park in Raleigh on Wednesday. The park is a tribute to the contributions of the Black community in the state.

The park's website said its mission is to honor the African American experience and struggle for freedom in North Carolina.

Freedom Park will be at the corner of S. Wilmington and E. Lane Streets, where 155 years ago former slaves celebrated their freedom. The park was designed by late architect Phil Freelon, who led the design of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Freelon's son, Durham city councilman Pierce Freelon, said on his way over, he couldn't help but think of his father and the contributions of Dr. John Hope Franklin, " I feel both of their spirits here today, and it's just an honor and a privilege to put this monument in our great state's capitol. I'm feeling a great deal of pride. My dad did a lot of buildings across this country, but he loved North Carolina. This is where he started his business, he went to college just down the street from here at NC State University. So I know his spirit is with us today, and it's a beautiful day for a groundbreaking."

The service comes after months of work to bring down Confederate monuments. Freelon and others said the park will celebrate the contributions and history of Black people in North Carolina.

The target date for opening day in spring 2022 depends, in part, on closing the funding gap. About $32 million in state and private funding are pledged so far, and the groundbreaking ceremony's considered by organizers as the kickoff of the public fundraising campaign.

"This park will be our gift to future generations," said Reginald Hildebrand, a member of the board for the park. "It will be our legacy."

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper spoke at the service and mentioned the state's rich history among African Americans, which includes the Greensboro Four and Black Wall Street in Durham.

"I'm proud of the work that my administration is doing to address racial and economic disparities and to find solutions," Cooper said. "And we'll continue to do that necessary and important work and continue to have those hard conversations that need to be had. We know that this site will help to educate generations to come and provide a place to celebrate the history and the art and the communities that make us all who we are, because diversity is indeed our strength."

The project was originally defunded when Cooper vetoed the state budget, Republican lawmakers noted, but the GOP-led general assembly revived the effort and passed a separate bill to fund the park.

"This project was years in the making, and it's exciting to see it finally become a reality due to the Republican effort to fund it," Sen. Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, said,

Despite the broad bipartisan effort, Republicans were miffed that they were excluded from the groundbreaking, which they said in a statement turned the project "into a political affair."

"It's unfortunate that organizers turned this into a political event by declining to invite Republicans, but this project is an important acknowledgement of the critical contributions made by Black North Carolinians over the past several hundred years," Sen. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, a Senate budget writer, said,

Sen. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, added: "Turning an acknowledgement of the historical contributions of Black North Carolinians into a political event only adds to the discontent and polarization that pervades our politics. Despite the pettiness, I'm still proud of our work to fund this important project."

The end of the ceremony featured a lighting of The Beacon of Freedom--a sculpture in the middle of the park that features quotes about freedom from Black North Carolinians.

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.
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