(AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

By Hannah Schoenbaum/AP

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina state officials joined historians and Black community leaders Wednesday under a sprawling oak tree in the heart of downtown Raleigh for the long-anticipated unveiling of the state’s first park honoring the African American struggle for freedom.

Located between the state Legislative Building and the governor’s Executive Mansion, the new North Carolina Freedom Park stands as a beacon of hope for Black North Carolinians and a reminder of their contributions in the fight for freedom and equality, said park project co-chair Goldie Frinks Wells.

Twenty quotes about freedom line the clay colored walkways of the 1-acre green space, leading to a towering “Beacon of Freedom” sculpture at the park’s center that beckons curious passersby on the hot August day. The metallic sculpture will be lit at dusk each night, illuminating the walls of quotes from Black historical figures and leaders from across the Tar Heel state.

Board members who helped created the park, including retired University of North Carolina history professor Dr. Reginald Hildebrand, said they hope it will spark civic conversations and encourage the state to face all of its history.

“This park is a village of wisdom and courage and strength,” Hildebrand said. “When you come here, you enter and honor the souls of Black folk who are speaking to you, whatever your background and identity may be, whatever challenges you may face.”

The walls of quotes, he said, serve as reminders for the Black community that the battle for freedom and equality is ongoing and “begins every morning.”

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper said at the ceremony Wednesday that he was most excited for North Carolina students and tourists visiting the capital city to have an interactive learning environment that displays “the brutal truth and extraordinary accomplishment” found in Black history. He encouraged the crowd to applaud legislators from both parties who had supported the project.

Cooper, who is term-limited and cannot run for reelection in 2024, has also played a key role in removing Confederate monuments from Capitol grounds during his six years as governor.

“The Executive Mansion is here,” he gestured. “The legislature is there. The Capitol is there. The courts are right over there. Now, nestled here among the branches of government, amidst the sound and the fury, shines North Carolina Freedom Park.”

The park was designed by the late Phil Freelon and his firm, Perkins + Will, and was built by the Raleigh-based construction company Holt Brothers. Before Wednesday, it had been under construction for three years. But the concept was decades in the making.

The idea for North Carolina Freedom Park arose in 2000 when a group assembled by the Paul Green Foundation, a local humanitarian organization, first brainstormed ways to celebrate emancipation and freedom in North Carolina. Those discussion led to the formation of a non-profit tasked with planning and building a commemorative park in downtown Raleigh, according to the park website.

Greg Milhouse, the father of one of the lead builders, Jordan Milhouse, said he was proud to finally see the product of his son’s hard work and to celebrate his important role in preserving their history. Milhouse said he could not wait to bring his grandsons, friends and other family members to explore the park.

“Instead of wasting idle time, let’s go learn a little bit about our history, let’s go learn a little bit about our struggle, let’s go learn about where we’re going and where we came from,” he said in an interview before the ceremony. “And this is a great place to start.”

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