Freedom Monument backers promote project honoring NC’s African-American heritage

Representatives from the North Carolina Freedom Monument Park from left, David Warren, Reginald Hodges and Kel Landis pose with an artist rendering of park plans Thursday, August 6, 2015 at the intersection of East Lane and North Wilmington Streets in downtown Raleigh.
Representatives from the North Carolina Freedom Monument Park from left, David Warren, Reginald Hodges and Kel Landis pose with an artist rendering of park plans Thursday, August 6, 2015 at the intersection of East Lane and North Wilmington Streets in downtown Raleigh. tlong@newsobserver.com

Supporters of a planned monument in downtown Raleigh to honor the history of African-Americans in North Carolina think the debate over Confederate flags and monuments represents a window of opportunity to kick-start the stalled project.

Freedom Monument Park Project board members met Thursday afternoon and agreed “to make a renewed effort to tell the story” about the state’s African-American heritage, said David Warren, a professor emeritus at Duke University and the project’s co-chair.

“There’s a feeling that the time has come for this,” Warren said. “There have been many accomplishments, and we think that story needs to be told, though the struggle goes on.”

The removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House grounds after the shooting deaths of nine people in Charleston this summer has brought calls to take down Confederate monuments in the South.

At the same time, there is an emerging movement for more monuments to balance the story, something the proposed Freedom Monument Park would do, supporters say.

The Freedom Monument Park has been in the works for more than a decade. It would sit on a parcel of land behind the N.C. Office of Archives and History, at Wilmington and Lane streets, a favored picnic spot for visiting school groups and home to a children’s garden and a memorial garden for crime victims.

But the $5 million project has languished in recent years, failing to win the necessary financial support from donors. The General Assembly appropriated $450,000 to the project in 2009 only to have that money rescinded by then-Gov. Bev Perdue in the face of massive budget cutbacks that year.

In 2012, Perdue signed an agreement that allowed the Freedom Monument Project to lease the site of the park for 10 years. A year later, the group formed a fundraising committee headed by Kel Landis, a former chief executive officer with RBC-Centura Bank, who 10 years ago co-founded Plexus Capital, a North Raleigh firm that provides capital to small businesses.

Landis said he volunteered to lead the fundraising effort and thought he could help because of previous fundraising experience in the banking industry and because he thinks it’s a compelling project.

“So far it’s faltered,” Landis said. “But I absolutely don’t think it will fail.”

Landis and Warren said organizers have temporarily suspended the fundraising campaign.

“We have talked to the larger corporations and got a lot of good vibes, but no money from the business community, at least not yet,” Warren said. “I think all they need to see is one big gift and that will break the logjam.”

Warren described a big gift as somewhere between 500,000 and $1 million.

“Everyone wants to be assured that this is not going to fail,” he said.

The monument project was launched in 2002 by the Paul Green Foundation of Chapel Hill. Several influential North Carolinians, including former UNC system President William Friday, former N.C. Central University Chancellor Julius Chambers, chairman emeritus of the Duke Endowment Mary Semans, historian John Hope Franklin and writer Maya Angelou, voiced support for the project.

Republican state Sen. Andrew Brock of Mocksville said when he served as chairman of a legislative subcommittee in 2008 and 2009, questions about the Freedom Monument Park included funding and what would happen to the N.C. Victims Memorial on the site.

“There was a multimillion-dollar hole in the budget, and budget cuts put everything on hold,” Brock said. “And with the dislocation of the victims memorial, I don’t know if there’s a rule, or law, or precedent for that.”

Brock said he thinks the proposal is “OK.”

“They just have to get the money,” he said. “I think if people have the desire and will to raise the money then they can.”

Goldie Frinks Wells, a former Greensboro city council member and co-chair of the monument project, said the group held an orientation breakfast in November in Cary that included politicians, university leaders and members of the business community.

“We thought that was going to be a turning point,” Wells said. “They all said it’s a wonderful project, but follow up was disappointing in terms of commitments.”

Wells, daughter of civil rights organizer Golden Frinks, is often asked why wealthy African-Americans haven’t given to the project. She thinks it’s because African-Americans have a different mindset when it comes to philanthropy. She said there are first and second generations of African-American wealth, but it isn’t accumulated wealth that numbers to the millions of dollars.

Wells said she contacted the people who handle basketball legend Michael Jordan’s money.

“They wrote me back on very nice stationery and told me, ‘We can’t give to every cause,’” she said.

Landis described the dearth of donations as “perplexing.”

“I thought it was a mom-and-apple-pie project that everyone would embrace,” he said. “But the money part has not surfaced. I really don’t know if it’s somewhat controversial or political, and I’m not sure of the underlying psychological emotions behind this.”

Landis hopes the project is nonpartisan and thinks it would complement Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposal to revitalize the State Government Complex.

Warren said the project will take about $3.5 million to build and another $1.5 million to maintain by the state Department of Cultural Resources. The group amassed a fraction of that amount, $700,000, “in bits and pieces along the way over the past eight or 10 years,” but that money has been spent on videos, designing fees, pre-construction work, a traveling exhibit about the Emancipation Proclamation that visits libraries across the state and toward the development of a curriculum with the state Department of Public Instruction that highlights the African-American experience in North Carolina in public schools.

Warren said the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation recently gave $35,000 to the project. The group intends to use the money to reorganize the project and perhaps use technology not available 10 years ago to retell the purpose of the Freedom Monument and why it is important. And they are hoping donors with deep pockets are listening.

Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the Senate minority leader and one-time member of the project’s advisory board, said he’s not bothered by the monuments and memorials to the Confederate soldiers.

“That’s part of it, but it’s not the full story,” Blue said. “Clearly, especially in light of what’s been taking place over the past month and a half with the Confederate flag and monuments, there’s a compelling need to complete the story.”

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @tmcdona75589225

Freedom Monument Park

The finished monument will feature a tall white slab called the Jim Crow Wall. The wall will have a large crack that depicts the Wilmington race riots of 1898.

The monument will address slavery with a serpentine-shaped water wall – “the weeping wall,” – with an auction block inscribed with well-worn footprints, where people stood and were sold in places such as Fayetteville and Wilmington.

The park intends to tell the story of the harsh struggle for freedom but also celebrate the accomplishments in the state’s African-American tradition.