On at trip to Barbados several years ago, a trustee of the Paul Green Foundation was stunned at the power of the message on a monument depicting the abolition of slavery by Queen Victoria in 1860. After realizing that North Carolina had no comparable monument, Green, the grandson of North Carolina author Paul Green, recommended that the board of directors for the Paul Green Foundation take action. On his recommendation, the foundation initiated the Freedom Monument Project, which seeks to establish a structure in Raleigh that will celebrate the contributions of African Americans in North Carolina.
"We want the piece to serve as a place for reflection," said Marsha Warren, executive director of the Foundation. "It will be a source of pride, unity and a place where we can participate together in the pain, healing and joy that a piece like this can provide."
Through regional meetings, being held through December, members of the community are given an opportunity to share personal stories, family histories and explore images, themes and values that should be reflected in the monument.
Project Director Leslie Williams said that this exchange of information, has served as an integral part of the project. A meeting was held last month in Durham, and future meetings are planned in Raleigh, Elizabeth City, Greensboro, Greenville, Hickory, Charlotte and Asheville.
"There was so much sharing at the Durham meeting," Williams said. A young African-American woman shared how she first experienced racism in high school, when she was denied service while out with her white friends. Williams and Warren say the cross-generational sharing and exchange is the most valuable part of the process.
"It is not about the end product," Warren says, "but about the dialogue that is taking place right now."
Public input generated from the community meetings, correspondence and Web site will be collected and provided to an independent design committee, which will work with the state arts councils to commission an artist. Though there has been talk of several possibilities for the structure, including a museum, a statue or monument, or a park, the final selection will be at the discretion of the commissioned artist and will be erected in Raleigh.
"We fully support the efforts of those in Greensboro, Wilmington and Salisbury," says Warren, "but we need a structure in the state capitol. Fourth and eighth grade children in North Carolina study North Carolina history and visit the Capitol. We want them to see the whole history, not just what is in the books. We want the structure to be at a prominent place in Raleigh."
To date, Warren says there has been "wonderful and incredible" support from the African American community across the state. Approximately 75 percent of the people involved at the planning committee level are African American, and since the first meeting on June 8, the project has gained financial support from a number of state agencies and organizations, including the North Carolina Arts Council, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and the North Carolina Humanities Council--which is providing the funding for the statewide community meetings.
Helen Bryant, a Hopewell, Va., native whose husband is from North Carolina, says she wants her children and grandchildren to understand the stories and triumphs of African Americans in North Carolina. "My husband has been involved in researching his family history. What he has found is that his family, just like we as a people, have been contributors to history in a major way," she says. "I want that to be represented with this structure. I want [this project] to have an impact."