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Durham architect designs national black history museum

Posted February 23, 2012
Updated February 24, 2012

— For most architects, designing a building so important the president attends the groundbreaking could only be a dream. 

For Phil Freelon, it was Wednesday at the groundbreaking for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

"There is a sense of turning the earth that makes it snap into today's real time," Freelon said.

Freelon found out almost three years ago that his firm, in collaboration with some others, had won a design competition for the museum. 

"For me, as an African-American, it's part of our heritage and so being involved is an honor and a privilege," Freelon said. 

Freelon graduated from North Carolina State University, before heading to MIT for graduate work and a career that eventually brought him to Durham to build his 55 person firm, the Freelon Group. 

"It feels like we've been preparing for this our whole careers," he said. 

Phil Freelon Durham architect designs national museum

The museum, which opens in 2015, could be one of the last built at the National Mall, and Freelon wants it to be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn about the African-American story.

"The stories of, yes, struggle, persecution and so on, but also the triumphs and the jubilation of the African American experience will come through in the building and the exhibits," Freelon said. "(So,) that everyone can find something worthwhile and inspiring when they go there." 

Freelon will soon start seeing his design take shape. 

"It is a big moment when you know that the child is about to be birthed in a short period of time, relatively speaking. When the construction starts, it really does add a sense of reality to the project," he said. 

Freelon is married to singer Nnenna Freelon who has been nominated for six Grammy Awards.


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  • issymayake Feb 27, 2012


    We ARE Americans. That's it. There is no argument there. There is no need to revise or sanitize history. Blacks accepted 'Afro' and later 'African-American' because we were not allowed to define ourselves for 350+ years.

    Why is the ire always with the NAACP? No ire with the Anti-Defamation League? What about La Raza or El Pueblo? GLAAD? etc. . . the NAACP is simply an advocacy group, and every ethnic and racial minority in the country has someone representing their interests as a group. Should you disagree with their stance, that's your right. But they are not 'Anti-American'.

    And it's never been about segregation, like I said before. The NAACP exists to ensure that rights are protected. Their mission is respected by many other groups, including many Arab Americans (check out the chapters in the Detroit metro area).

  • randall0123a Feb 24, 2012

    “African-American was a way for blacks to identify themselves” – issymayake.

    Again, why the need? Why not identify as an American? I am of Slovak heritage, but I identify myself as an American. If you do not want to be a part of the general unified American population, and give yourself a different label, then you have just segregated yourself and identified with the color of your skin rather than your country. I am not offended, as that is self- inflicted by anyone that requires that individuality away from a national people. What I find problematic is when a self-segregated subculture complains that there is too much segregation, like this fiasco in Wake County School system, which is driven by NAACP (again, clearly only concerned with a single self-segregated group/people). A unified nation will always be stronger than varied subcultures cohabitating on a large plot of land.

  • randall0123a Feb 24, 2012

    Timexliving, my point exactly. There is obviously still too much racial tension in this country, sadly. To overcome, we need to be color blind, and come together as Americans, not individualized sects or cultures. As soon as we start (or continue) to identify ourselves separately, then only those of the same identity will be our brothers and sisters. I am very proud of my ethnic background, and I like to study the history of where I came from. But, this is now; I live in America, in the present, and am a proud citizen. I served in the military for all Americans, for the idea of a free nation of equals. This did not include the idea of independent cultures that are only out for themselves. The world is a mess, and this country still can’t come together as a single people and be proud of just being an American.

  • randall0123a Feb 24, 2012

    Hammerhead, if segregation is your stance, please continue on your personal quest to segregate things at your leisure. Why not talk about the contributions made by blacks for America the same as any other American that contributed to our history? The Holocaust, the Civil War, Nascar – are all events. Are you insinuating that black people are an event? We are all American people. So please, explain the need to segregate these things out by race? It’s undeniably self-segregation, which is a backwards step. People of different ethnic backgrounds have different experiences throughout history, obviously. That diversity made us the melting pot, and all are a part of American history as a whole. Would you prefer different text books too? Are we to build separate museums for each ethnic group? Different text books and classes to teach these histories separately? Or, we can celebrate and learn of the history of the single nation and its people, as one – like ONE unified nation.

  • issymayake Feb 24, 2012

    Really. . did my comment get flagged? *sheesh*

    As I said it's never been about segregation and division. And America is not and has never been a 'melting pot'. America is a tossed salad. We all retain our individual backgrounds and histories but we try to work well together for a healthy nation.

    Now that's out of the way, African-American was a way for blacks to identify themselves; since for 350 years we weren't allowed to do it and were called 'Negro' or 'Colored'. It arose in the late 1960s and early 1970s and was picked up for common use to give blacks a cultural base and a connection to the African diaspora.

    So yes it's appropriate because this is how we choose to self-identify. If you're offended by it then tough. But we're just as American as you or anyone else in this country.

    Congrats to the Freelon group.

  • Ex-Republican Feb 24, 2012

    "Maybe we should have one big museum, put it in the geographical center of the US and have a wing for every group/race/special interest/etc. We could call it the Ameridome."

    I'm interpreting your comment as sarcasm. My skin color is dark brown and my ethnicity part African. But since I was born in the USof A, I am not African hypen anything. I am simply an American. Being a "race"-American this or "race"-American that dilutes our national identity of Americans.

  • Hammerhead Feb 24, 2012

    Maybe we should have one big museum, put it in the geographical center of the US and have a wing for every group/race/special interest/etc. We could call it the Ameridome.

  • Hammerhead Feb 24, 2012

    randall, to use the employee analogy...if you think White and Black American history are one and the same, you need to brush up on your history. Your example is a bad comparison.

  • Hammerhead Feb 24, 2012

    randall, it's about recognizing a facet of our history that is seldom shown, that's all. Why make more of it than what it is? It's a museum that relates the story of Blacks in America. Why do you see that as divisive? Is not the Holocaust museum relavent? Civil War Memorials? THe NASCAR museum? Are you a "Southerner"? This is about recognition, nothing more. It's a facet of history that is often glossed over. If you see it as racist, well, then call me a racist.

  • randall0123a Feb 24, 2012

    Talking about history, those of us that believe in equality did away with drinking fountains labeled for whites, and another drinking fountain for blacks. You do realize, this is putting the labels back on? Congratulations on moving backwards. If an American did something of note, then let us be proud of them because they accomplished something as an American, not because they were black and happen to be an American. Needing to separate out history like this demeans the event’s being recognized. If your employer gives you recognition, what would be more appealing; to be recognized as the best employee, or to be recognized as the best black, or the best white employee? I would prefer to be compared with all of the employees myself.