Documenting the American South

Doc South header logo Home
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes of North Carolina
Commemorative Landscapes banner

A Historical Landscape By the People, For the People:
The North Carolina Freedom Monument

By Nelson Edmondson, Molly Patterson, and Alana Wilson

The history of North Carolina, like that of all other Southern states, has long been narrated by an overwhelmingly white voice. The exclusion of alternate historical narratives, especially the African American story, is evident in the history told by public art. The absence of African Americans from the monuments that constitute the state’s official commemorative landscape in Raleigh is particularly striking. By focusing selectively on the historical memory of whites, the sponsors of the state monuments have neglected other perspectives. The North Carolina Freedom Monument Project (NCFMP) seeks to redress this commemorative silence by building a monument to the African American experience that builds upon and reflects public participation. By gathering and utilizing public opinion, this Project represents a marked change in the way the commemorative landscape of the state, and the capitol in particular, have been created.

To appreciate fully how innovative the planned Freedom Monument is, it is useful to consider the rituals that accompanied two monuments that still occupy conspicuous places on the capitol grounds. On May 20, 1895, Alfred M. Waddell1 gave the address for the unveiling of the towering Confederate monument there. He glorified the monument as a symbol of Christian civilization, historical memory, freedom, and ultimately, white superiority:

"So the genius of Christian civilization shapes the homely virtues of a brave and true people into the noble edifice of free government. It is dumb granite, but it is not voiceless to us and will not be to our children, for it will be a perpetual appeal to their pride and patriotism. It is inanimate stone, but instinct with glorious memories. It is a silent memorial, but it is also an eloquent history, and a tender poem. . . ."2

Fifty-four years later, on October 19, 1949, another monument was unveiled on the Capitol grounds, and this time it was in honor of the three presidents of the United States Andrew Jackson, James Polk, and Andrew Johnson originally from North Carolina who had left their “footprints on the sands of time.”3 But these two monuments erected a half century apart demonstrate that the story being told on the Capitol grounds was not inclusive. The deafening voice of whites muted those of the state’s women, African Americans, and Native Americans, who were unacknowledged on the landscape.

In 2001 during a trip to Barbados, Paul Green, Jr., the grandson of the famed playwright and humanist Paul Green was captivated by a statue of a man breaking his shackles and becoming free.4 After returning to North Carolina, Green persuaded the Paul Green Foundation to invest in the creation of a new memorial to be placed on the Capitol grounds. This memorial would commemorate the hardships of obtaining freedom. Providing the alternate voice of the African American experience to the one-sided history found on the Capitol grounds is intended, as the mission statement of the project declares, “to create and strengthen bonds between diverse people, educate and enhance mutual understanding, serve as a model of cooperation, respect and common values, and provide a space for contemplation and inspiration.”5

From its inception, the NCFMP distinguished itself by its self-conscious commitment to public participation. According to a member of the Board of Directors, Reginald Hildebrand, the process is as important as the final product.6 After the initial inspiration, the Paul Green Foundation decided that the monument project, undefined at the time, must represent the people of North Carolina. The Foundation received a grant from the State Arts Council to conduct a survey of interest in the monument, which generated a positive response.7 In 2002, 50 interested people from across the state met in Raleigh to conceptualize the future of the project. With the goal of making the monument’s subject directly relevant to those attending the meeting, participants were asked to place themselves and their own stories on the timeline that the monument would depict.8 The conclusion of the initial meeting was that more meetings were required in order to hear firsthand the desires of the people whose history would be commemorated by the monument. Subsequent town meetings would provide a better sense of North Carolinians’ definitions of freedom, the struggle for freedom, and how these principles should best be represented. Nine town meetings were held across the state, attracting diverse audiences, ranging from undergraduates at East Carolina University to a primarily African American audience in Goldsboro. Overall, the majority of participants in the meetings were African American.9 When organizers met at a conference in Raleigh in the summer of 2003 to reflect on the advice gathered during the town meetings, two recommendations were clear: the monument should be engaging and interactive; and it should avoid representing African American history with another statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Frederick Douglass.10

The (NCFMP) leaders worked to keep these thoughts in mind when they wrote a Request for Qualifications.11 In 2005, after an application process that involved 108 entries, some from international artists, a monument design was chosen. A board of qualified artists and professionals selected the team of artist Juan Logan and art historian Lyneise Williams of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and landscape architect David Swanson of Carrboro.12 The winning design was for a “Freedom Grove,” a park with multiple abstract and symbolic features representing the African American experience in the journey for freedom.

Another important part of the public process has been the creation of a school curriculum, which has been available on the Project’s website even before the construction of the monument itself.13 The (NCFMP) emphasizes the importance of the monument as first and foremost a tool for education, and anticipates that thousands of North Carolina children will visit the monument on field trips each year.

Four years after the (NCFMP) began and immediately after a design team was chosen for the monument, the board planned on finishing the project by 2008 at a cost of $2.5 million.14 In 2012, three years later, Freedom Grove is still in the preliminary stages of development and fundraising. In 2007, the state legislature appropriated $100,000 for the project, and former Governor Mike Easley lobbied for the state to donate an extra $1 million.15 Nine years of work by the project’s board members was required to secure approval by Governor Beverley Purdue and the Capital Planning Commission on January 11, 2011.16 Although the Freedom Monument Project has only recently been approved, it has already been recognized by people statewide as a necessary contribution to the state’s historical landscape. Governor Perdue herself remarked in 2009, “This monument is long overdue . . . [i]t adds to the full story of our heritage and will educate and inspire for generations to come”.17

When completed, the monument will sit at the corner of Wilmington and Lane Streets, behind the State Archives building.18 To depict the struggle of African Americans for their freedom, and significant landmarks in that struggle, the team of Logan, Williams, and Swanson has designed a series of abstract monuments inside the park. Besides a weeping wall and a replica of a slave auction block, there will also be a horizontal wall rent by a fissure that will symbolize the Wilmington race riots of 1898. An amphitheater and several reading benches will also be installed in order to give visitors to Freedom Grove a place for reflection. Juan Logan describes his hopes for the public’s response , “You should expect to be moved. Expect to be engaged . . . When you talk about freedom, there’s no one vantage point. Everyone brings something personal to it.”19 The Freedom Monument, as Marsha Warren says, “is about a lot of things but is basically about the children of North Carolina,” those generations that are to come.20

.

The monuments’ creators look upon children not only as future visitors to the park but also sponsors for its construction. While the state currently leases the lot to the non-profit organization, the NCFMP must raise $5 million in five years in order to keep claims on the land and to state-distributed funds.21 To aid fundraising efforts, the more than130,000 schoolchildren who make the trek to the capitol each school year will collect pennies and dimes.22 In addition to their contributions, monies will be solicited from private and public corporations, some of whom have already promised funds. The tough economic times re a challenge to the members of the (NCFMP) , yet they remain optimistic. While they are concerned about the funding of their project, they are also in the process of gathering public opinion about the central monument that is to be constructed in Freedom Grove. Some say it should be reminiscent of the Barbadian slave loosed from his chains while others envision an interpretation of Martin Luther King’s vision of black boys and white girls holding hands.23 No matter what the outcome, the NCFMP is exhilarated by their prospects. As an art critic Renée Ater summarizes in her article about public displays of the memory of slavery, “The aims of the NCFMP are lofty….the planners hope the North Carolina public will be constantly challenged to remember the past as an agent for transformation in the present.”24

When completed, this project will encourage North Carolinians to consider all perspectives on their history and not just those interpretations that are currently visible on the grounds of the capitol. Because the proposed designs of Freedom Grove require the visitor to interact with and examine the state’s history, the monument emphasizes a new purpose for memorialization. In contrast to previous North Carolina monument projects, the NCFMP hopes that their memorial will promote discussion between groups now and into the future. The Freedom Monument is a monument to an idea, one that can be continuously reinterpreted by future generations. The fact that the project will narrate the African American experience, as well as gather and interject public opinion in a meaningful way, makes the project a new conception of historical landscapes in North Carolina.

Notes

1. Alfred Moore Waddell was a former Confederate soldier who made it to the rank of colonel. After the war he entered politics and became a United States Congressman, and was an ardent supporter of the state’s Democratic Party. Waddell would later be a major participant in the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898, and then become the city’s major until 1905.

2. Alfred M. Waddell, “Address at the Unveiling of the Confederate Monument at Raleigh N.C., May 20th”, 1895. Wilmington, NC: LeGwin Printers, 1895 (http://www.archive.org/details/addressatunveili00wadd), 3-4.

3. Broadus E. Jones, “Invocation.” In Presidents North Carolina Gave the Nation, Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Commission for the Memorial to the Three NC Presidents, 1949, 11.

4. The monument was constructed in 1960 so as to memorialize the 100th anniversary for Queen Victoria’s emancipation of the slaves in Barbados.

5. The North Carolina Freedom Monument, “About Us,” http://www.ncfmp.org/about/ (Adopted: March 5, 2005).

6. Reginald Hildebrand, Interview by Molly Patterson and Alana Wilson, Personal Interview. Chapel Hill, NC, April 8, 2011.

7. Marsha Warren, Interview by Nelson Edmondson, Molly Patterson, and Alana Wilson, Personal Interview. Carrboro, NC, April 12, 2011.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. The North Carolina Freedom Monument Project, Notes from the Artist-Finalists Tea. Raleigh, NC, April 2, 2005.

11. Warren, Personal Interview.

12. The North Carolina Freedom Monument, “Meet the Artists,” accessed April 3, 2011, http://www.ncfmp.org/artists/.

13. The North Carolina Freedom Monument, “Curriculum,” accessed April 10, 2011, http://www.ncfmp.org/curriculum/.

14. Thomas McDonald, “Trio takes on monumental task”, The Raleigh News and Observer, March 3, 2006, B3.

15. McDonald, “Easley backs tribute to black experience”, The Raleigh News and Observer, May 17, 2008, B1.

16. McDonald, “African-American monument gets Raleigh panel’s ok”, The Raleigh News and Observer, January 11, 2011, Web.

17. Office of the Governor, “North Carolina Freedom Monument Project”, (Raleigh, NC: Beverley E. Perdue, March 30, 2009).

18. Marsha Warren and Reginald Hildebrand, “Presentation to Capital Planning Commission”, North Carolina Freedom Monument Project, 11 January 2011.

19. McDonald, “Trio takes on monumental task”.

20. Warren, Personal Interview.

21. Warren and Hildebrand, “Presentation to Capital Planning Commission”.

22. McDonald, “Monument gets design team”, The Raleigh News and Observer, February 22, 2006, B3.

23. Reginald Hildebrand Interview; Marsha Warren Interview

24. Ater, Renée, “Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments”, American Art: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Spring 2010.