If these walls could talk: Exhibits tell stories of Dix Park’s past, NC’s Black architects

·4 min read

Enslaved plasterer William Benjamin Gould didn’t know whether anyone would see his initials at Wilmington’s Bellamy Mansion, but he carved them anyways in the decorative plaster, silently signing his work sometime before 1862.

The scrawled and artful “WBG” screamed out through history when it was discovered more than a century later during a 1993 restoration of the historic home.

That piece of history is revealed in two exhibitions — “From Plantation to Park” and “We Built This” — on the physical history of North Carolina. They’re in a new pop-up museum at Dorothea Dix Park that was unveiled Saturday.

“From Plantation to Park” examines the history of Dix Park, from its time as a Native American hunting ground, its 150 years as the Spring Hill Plantation and later the founding of North Carolina’s first hospital treating mental illness. It leads up to its current use as Raleigh’s largest public park.

“We Built This” tells the stories of North Carolina’s Black architects and designers, many who were enslaved and previously had their contributions diminished or erased from history.

The exhibitions, a partnership between the Dix Park Conservancy, Preservation NC and the City of Raleigh museum, are on display in All Faiths Chapel at Dix Park until Feb. 27.

Pierce Freelon performs Jan. 15, 2022, at the unveiling of a new pop-up museum at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh. His late father, Phil Freelon, was a renowned architect who is featured in an exhibit at the park.
Pierce Freelon performs Jan. 15, 2022, at the unveiling of a new pop-up museum at Dorothea Dix Park in Raleigh. His late father, Phil Freelon, was a renowned architect who is featured in an exhibit at the park.

Precious history

With the Raleigh skyline peeking through the bare January trees, Preservation NC president Myrick Howard said buildings keep the past alive in ways other histories can’t, connecting the thread of generations through the spaces we inhabit. While made of bricks and stone, Howard said it’s a precious history.

“When our buildings are preserved, they can tell us stories,” Howard said. “Some of those stories are awful. Some of those stories are inspiring. But when the buildings go away, the stories tend to go away, too.”

Nearly 25 years ago, Preservation NC curated an exhibition on the state’s Black architects and builders, taking the show to around 20 venues in North Carolina. Howard said the moment had arrived to refresh the exhibit and launch it in a new context.

“There’s a lot more information now than there was 15, 20 years ago,” Howard said. “Our hope is there will be that much more new information 15 years from now and that the next round of this exhibit will be even greater.”

The opening ceremony Saturday on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend featured a performance by Grammy-nominated artist Pierce Freelon. His late father, Phil Freelon, was one of the state’s most renowned architects who designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He died in 2019 from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is featured in the pop-up museum at Dix Park.

Pierce Freelon said sharing the stories of Black architects throughout history will inspire the next generation of builders.

“Growing up, my father didn’t know of many Black architects,” Freelon said. “But he knew of Julian Abele, who built the Duke Chapel.”

A sign of things to come

Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the pop-up museum builds on momentum around Dix Park, a site she believes can serve people from all over the city.

“I’m really excited about this pop-up event because it’s one of the firsts,” Baldwin said. “And there are going to be a lot of firsts at Dix Park, bringing us together as a community. ... It’s really about connection and how all of us are connected. When we realize that we’re all in this together and all connected, that’s how we get things done.”

In recent years, Dix Park has hosted some of Raleigh’s biggest events, and even on a cold Saturday on the eve of an ice storm, the park was busy with visitors. Museum organizers said the exhibitions are part of an effort to build greater awareness of the park’s history as it continues to attract more people.

Orage Quarles, chairman of the Dix Park Conservancy and former publisher of The News & Observer, cited Frederick Douglass’ founding of a newspaper, The North Star, which was a reference to the North Star as a celestial guide for enslaved people seeking freedom in the north.

“What we’re building here in Dix Park, I hope will be the North Star,” Quarles said. “It will be the star where you can go to get your mental recovery, it will be the star where you can go to get your physical recovery and it will be be a star where you can go to get your emotional recovery. ... We’re building a park for the future, for everyone.”

The pop-up museum is at the Chapel Event Center, 1030 Richardson Drive, Raleigh. It will be open Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sundays, 12 noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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