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‘Black history is literally everywhere.’ Archaeologists search Raleigh site for clues

North Carolina Freedom Park, a celebration of the African American experience, will be built on the block between two seats of statewide power: the Executive Mansion and the Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh.

That’s the future of the land. The past has not entirely been revealed yet.

Answers could tell more of North Carolina’s history not just from records of the landowning white men, but the enslaved African Americans who labored and lived there, and the Native Americans who may have predated all of them on the site.

“It gives me chills,” said state Sen. Natalie Murdock, a Durham Democrat who has been campaign coordinator for Freedom Park since before she ran for office.

Archaeologists with the state are using ground-penetrating radar to discover what lies beneath a gravel parking lot on the site before construction begins.

Their work could change the final version of Freedom Park, to tell visitors about the history of the enslaved people who lived there.

Murdock said Freedom Park’s leaders are “excited to learn about this rich history before we got too far along in the project, so it’s early on enough that we can modify our design so that we can accurately lift up whatever it is we find out about this space.”

The long-planned project includes public and private funding and was designed by the late architect Phil Freelon, whose firm, Perkins and Will, also designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Angela Thorpe is director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, which will be the park’s steward once it is completed. That could be within the next 12 to 18 months.

“African American history, our ancestors, their lives, their stories are always around us,” she said. Thorpe said discoveries on the Freedom Park site “reinforces that Black history is literally everywhere.”

Underground radar

On a dreary Wednesday morning, work was underway on the Freedom Park Archaeology Project, led by the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology.

The state bought the land in the 1960s and developed about half of it, with the rest a surface parking lot, concrete gazebo structure, grassy area, trees and a memorial to crime victims.

Initial project research found that the 4-acre city block was bought by Scottish immigrant and lawyer Gavin Hogg from Robert A. Jones of Halifax County for $400 in 1831. In 1850, a house was built for Thomas Devereux Hogg, a businessman who married Janet Bryan of Raleigh in 1848. The house and property took up the entire block that now also includes the State Archives and Records Center buildings and is bordered by Jones, Blount, Wilmington and Lane streets. An aerial illustrated map from 1872 shows a large house surrounded by several trees and smaller buildings. It predates the Executive Mansion, the governor’s residence.

Project research also found that according to the slave schedule of the 1850 census, Hogg owned 18 enslaved people in Raleigh. It is not clear if they all lived on that downtown block or elsewhere on land owned by the Hogg family in the city. Two of the enslaved people listed in the census were classified as “mulatto” and may have been of Native American descent. The archaeology and historical research offices are hoping to determine if there was pre-Colonial-era use of the land by American Indians, if there were homes of enslaved people on the land and what happened to enslaved residents after emancipation during the Civil War.

David Cranford, assistant state archaeologist with the state Office of Archaeology, said the ground-penetrating radar is used to record vertical profiles of what’s beneath the surface 20-50 centimeters down. Those vertical profiles are then stitched together with software to create 3-D models of what’s underneath. So far, they have found an “anomaly,” which is something different than the expected soil and clay, that might be part of the front of the house.

State Archaeologist John Mintz said two houses once stood on the area they are investigating, both the 1850 house and one possibly from 1830. Their work could turn up things like old foundations, wells, cisterns, privies and walkways.

Because the estate was within a city that had established cemeteries, it is unlikely people would be buried there, said Mary Beth Fittz, assistant state archaeologist. Several Hogg family members are buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh. As far as what was on the land before the 1800s, Fittz said is still an unknown. She said that based on the purchase price, it was undeveloped. The oak and ash trees on the land are likely “witness” trees from the 1800s, which means trees that have stood during historical events. State archival research will also lead to more answers about what happened on the land.

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The circa 1850 Hogg house on the block of Lane, Wilmington, Blount and Jones streets was demolished and the new Legislative Building was completed in the same year, 1962. Freedom Park will be built on the block. North Carolina State Archives

Freedom Park plans

At the center of plans for Freedom Park is a large piece of public art called the Beacon of Freedom. It broke ceremonial ground in October 2020, the same year that $1.5 million in state funding came through from the General Assembly. The total project cost will be $5 million and is now fully funded thanks to a $1.9 million grant just awarded from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that will be used mostly on construction of the Beacon.

It could also receive more funding in this year’s state budget, as was proposed in a House version of the bill. The state budget process for 2021 is still bogged down in negotiations, but if more funding is allotted, Murdock said it will enhance the park.

Murdock is African American and had enslaved ancestors in Orange County.

“As I walk into the General Assembly … the ancestors and the spirit of enslaved people are literally right across the street, and we just so happened to pick this location for North Carolina Freedom Park,” she said.

“We can never undo our past or truly rectify it, but at least we’re doing the right thing and acknowledging history on this physical space,” Murdock said.

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The artistic rendering of North Carolina Freedom Park from the Southwest. The park will be at Lane and Wilmington streets in downtown Raleigh.

Blocks from Freedom Park, on the state Capitol grounds, another long-planned project has stalled. A proposed monument to African Americans in North Carolina history is on hold until $2.5 million is allocated in the state budget. Neither the House or Senate versions of this year’s budget proposed money for it, but it could end up in the final budget.

Thorpe, director of the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, said they are still planning for both projects.

“Ultimately we’ll see downtown Raleigh is a hub for celebrating multiple narratives celebrating African American history, art and culture. Freedom Park will be one piece of that, and later the monument will be another piece,” Thorpe said.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.

This story was originally published September 23, 2021 4:35 PM.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham, and has received the McClatchy President’s Award as well as several North Carolina Press Association awards, including for investigative reporting.

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