This fall, late architect Phil Freelon, who led the design of the iconic National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C., will be honored by family and friends.
Freelon’s son, Pierce, says the memorial will take place in their hometown of Durham, N.C., on Sept. 28, inside the Durham County Human Services Building, a structure Freelon designed.
“He is free now,” he said of his father, who died July 9 at 66 from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). “And we celebrate that ascension and the life and legacy he’s left us.”
Freelon was the lead architect of the African American Museum, which opened in 2016 and drew such dignitaries as Barack and Michelle Obama, George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Rep. John Lewis for its grand opening.
He was diagnosed with ALS the same year of the museum’s opening. ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that causes the body to slowly deteriorate.
“The only motion he had left was the ability to speak and move his left hand,” Pierce Freelon said of his father’s final moments, for which he held his hand and watched him take his last breath.
“I still feel his presence in the two days that he has been gone — I feel like I have seen, or heard, or smelled him several times,” he said. “I’m wearing his ring, his bracelet, he’s still with me.”
Outside of architecture design, Freelon says his father loved to play basketball and chess and listen to music.
“One of the last things he told me was, ‘I’m going over yonder,’” he said. “He loved quoting songs and bringing that into his daily life and making us laugh.”
Pierce said his father also taught him to show people from all walks of life dignity, love and respect.
Freelon was renowned for his artistic approach to architecture and design. The buildings he helped design include the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Harvey Gantt African American History Museum in Charlotte and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham.
“All of his buildings have this kind of creative, vibrant style to it,” Pierce said. “And he also put that kind of style to it. He also put that style in his children. Clearly, my siblings, my wife, his grandchildren — we all have this vibrant energy that he left us with, and we are his living legacies and it’s a privilege to carry his spirit forward through the work that we do.”
Cora Cole-McFadden, a former Durham City Council member, recalls meeting Freelon when he submitted a proposal to design the city’s transportation center — a bid she says he won, but not without intervention.
“There was an all-white review team about to award the project to a firm from another city,” Cole-McFadden said. “Clearly, Phil was the most qualified but not a part of the ‘good ol’ boy’ network. After setting straight a process free of race discrimination, his proposal was honored. The rest is history.”
Last year, Freelon and his wife, Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nneena Freelon, founded North Star Church for the Arts in downtown Durham, for which Pierce Freelon serves as the artistic director.
“He was a true role model for young people especially, aspiring African Americans in the field of architecture,” said Bill Bell, the former mayor of Durham. “He loved his adopted home Durham. His architectural work, in general and specifically in Durham, will remain as a testament to his talents and creativity. I was fortunate to be able to be considered as a friend and a fraternity brother and we are all fortunate to have had him live in and contribute to Durham in so many ways.”
The family asks for support of North Star in lieu of flowers for the upcoming memorial.