Durham couple helps shape African-Americans’ role in the arts

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – Phil and Nnenna Freelon may not be known to all in central North Carolina, but residents might recognize their contributions to the arts.

Together, they’ve launched prominent careers, but who they are at their core is what fuels their work.

Phil and Nnenna Freelon. Photo provided by Freelon family.
Phil and Nnenna Freelon

“I’m a dad, I’m a granddad, I’m a husband,” Phil Freelon answered when asked who he was by CBS North Carolina’s Bearishelle Edmé. “But since you’re here in my office, I’ll tell you I’m an architect!”

RELATED: More stories from the North Carolina Hidden History special

Nnenna Freelon describes herself as “a girl from Cambridge, Massachusetts for whom jazz chose. I feel like jazz chose me– the music, the desire to sing ”

Their love story of 37 years is one they tell with pride and giddiness.

“I mean, I still like this guy,” Nnenna Freelon remarked. “Lucky for me,” her husband quickly quipped, but the singer reaffirms, “Lucky for you? Lucky for me!”

Phil Freelon’s architecture firm is located in Research Triangle Park, but his work is spread throughout North Carolina and the nation.

Locally, his work is seen at “the Durham Bulls athletic park, parking structure at Raleigh-Durham Airport, the Durham County Health and Human Services complex downtown on East Main Street, and the Transportation Complex in Durham is our design as well, just to name a few,” Phil Freelon listed.

He’s also designed cultural sites in San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston and most recently Washington, with the Smithsonian’s latest, The National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Alan Karchmer

“This is a unique place,” the Philadelphia native explained. “It’s distinctive by intention.”

The N.C. State University School of Design graduate says he likes to design experiences not just buildings, something he feels he’s accomplished with NMAAHC.

“We think a building of that type that’s talking about culture and history should help to convey the message not simply to be a container for exhibits and artifacts,” he said.

news-app-download-apple-350x50news-app-download-android-350x50

 

The African-American architect adds, “This was our people, a very important building on the mall, but we were prepared.”

His firm teamed up with other prominent black architects to beat out hundreds of bids to design the museum, an achievement he holds with pride.

Freelon notes, “As an artist, yes, my background, my heritage all plays into it.”

This sentiment rings true for his wife as well, who’s taken the African and African-American roots of jazz all across the globe.

“It’s a melding, it’s a mixture. It’s a beautiful expression of cultural connection,” she detailed to Edmé.

The six-time Grammy nominated artist tells CBS North Carolina her rhythm and blues is a universal language, one that belts out the black experience in the U.S.

Nnenna Freelon
Nnenna Freelon

“I am a black woman 365 days of the year, not just in February. I do what I do every single day,” Nnenna Freelon said. “I think music does – at its best, music soothes the soul.”

For her husband, he believes, “The African-American story in North Carolina is like the underpinnings of all the great things that have been happening over the decades.” >

The couple’s own story has been for better or worse, in sickness and health.

“I didn’t even know what it was. I had no idea and when the doctors said it’s a fatal neurological. I was like ‘Wait a minute. Fatal– what is that,’” Nnenna Freelon recalled when discussing her husband’s diagnosis with ALS, something he calls challenging, but not defeating.

The Freelon’s are learning day-by-day to move forward with life despite the illness.

On April 20 at Durham’s Carolina Theater, they will showcase the arts in a benefit for the Duke ALS clinic to fund research for a cure.

In the meantime, the Freelon’s are living in the moment, yet molding the future and their legacies.

Phil Freelon’s sketches are drawn with open doors, which are sometimes closed in architecture. The National Organization of Minority Architects recently released a report that only 2 percent of licensed architects are African-Americans.

The 63-year-old hopes to see that change.

“Maybe young African-American boys and girls will recognize this as something they can do and follow in footsteps if you will.”

As for Nnenna’s voice, it carries on a struggle, a triumph that dates back to the 1920s when jazz was introduced to the nation.

“I hope that my music will live longer than I do. I hope so,” she said.

Click for more information on the Freelon ALS Fund and the benefit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s