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Acclaimed African-American Architect Phil Freelon Dies

Phil Freelon, Architect, ALS
Jeffrey Camarati
Courtesy of PNC
File photo of Durham architect Phil Freelon.

Phil Freelon, the decorated architect most celebrated for his work on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History And Culture, has died. He was 66.The architect was diagnosed with ALS in 2016, the same year the iconic museum opened to the public. He died of the neuro-degenerative disease Tuesday in Durham.

You try and figure out what is the new normal going to be. And we decided early on, that it was not in our nature as a couple or as individuals to retreat into some shell and pretend, to hide the truth. - Phil Freelon

While his work is known nationwide, one of the most well-known African American architects of his generation also put his talented mind and hands on smaller, but just as important projects, like the Durham Station Transportation Center. Buses can be seen carrying patrons from the downtown depot all day and night.

In fact, there’s a little bit of Freelon sprinkled all over Durham. The architect is also responsible for designing Hillside High School, the new Durham Bulls Ballpark, and the bio-manufacturing Research Institute at North Carolina Central University.

Lew Myers has known Freelon for 30 years, most of that time as director of business development of The Freelon Group, and later at the firm Perkins and Will.

“Phil lived a great life, did what he wanted to do," said Myers. "Phil is an architect’s architect. If you define architect, Phil’s it.”

Myers says Freelon brought great design to the field and he worked hard to integrate the profession, bringing more architects of color into the practice. At one time, The Freelon Group was one of the largest African American owned architectural firms in the country. In 2014, Freelon joined Perkins and Will, continuing to work on projects like the expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit.

But in early 2016, Freelon and his family learned he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Freelon said on The State of Things, he had a decision to make.

“You try and figure out what is the new normal going to be," Freelon told host Frank Stasio. "And we decided early on, that it was not in our nature as a couple or as individuals to retreat into some shell and pretend, to hide the truth.”

Also in 2016, Freelon would help open the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In the spring of 2017, the Freelon family made sure everyone knew their story and celebrated Phil Freelon at the Carolina Theatre in Durham.

“We are here to celebrate! Ya’ll with me! Whooo! Look around, this is what community looks like, love it!" said Nnenna Freelon. The Grammy nominated Jazz artist has been married to Phil Freelon 40 years.

“I like the sunrise, because it brings a new day. I like a new day, it brings new hope they say," Nnenna Freelon sang to the crowd.

Phil Freelon was in high spirits.

“Gosh, there are a lot of people here, a lot of architects!" said Phil Freelon, to a crowd of laughter. "Doesn’t ALS stand for Architect Lecture Series or something. I can bring out some slides and talk about museums!”

That evening, then-Mayor Bill Bell proclaimed April 20, 2017 "Phil Freelon Day." Freelon has received many honors for his work and humanity, including honorary degrees from Duke University and N.C. State, his alma mater.

Freelon is a native of Philadelphia, but moved south for college. He is a 1975 graduate of N.C. State, and earned a master’s degree from MIT.

A "celebration" for Freelon is scheduled for September, and according to Myers, it will be held at the Durham County Human Services Complex, which Freelon designed for the people.

“I think that building is certainly one of Phil’s favorites because Phil felt that everybody deserved to see great design, experience great design," said Myers.

Freelon is survived by his wife Nnenna Freelon, three children – Deen, Maya and Pierce Freelon, three siblings and seven grand-children.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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