“We Built This”: Profiles of Black Architects and Builders in North Carolina

“Hiding in plain sight is the physical manifestation of our labor, because most of the historic structures in this country were built by, constructed by Black people… and yet those stories have never been told.”

— Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation (2020)

This exhibit was developed with Preservation NC as a traveling exhibit about the history and legacy of Black builders and craftspeople in North Carolina. The educational journey dives into the profiles of the personal work and life of 25+ local builders while providing a historical backdrop spanning three centuries. While visitors explore the mark left by these creatives, they can begin to understand the challenges they faced through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and segregation. Two larger backdrop panels explore the founding of historically Black colleges and universities and an extensive view of Black churches, leading to the rise of Black civic leadership and entrepreneurs. Highlighted throughout the exhibit, the “Empowerment through the generations” explores the legacy of these builders, bricklayers, stonemasons, plasterers, woodworkers, architects, and creators into future generations of Black leaders and community.


The exhibit’s first opening was at Dix Park’s All Faiths Chapel, a pop-up space also featuring “From Plantation to Park,” an exhibit about the park’s history. The opening ceremony was on MLK Jr. weekend. Speakers included Stormie Fort, Myrick Howard, Ernest Dollar, and a performance by Grammy Nominated artist Pierce Freelon. Pierce is the son of Phil Freelon, renowned architect from Durham, NC who designed the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Phil Freelon is featured in the exhibit.


“I got emotional when I saw my dad in [the exhibit] because he passed away in 2019, but I feel his presence often. [In the exhibit] My dad is right next to Julian Abele and on the flipside is Harvey Gantt, who was a close friend of his and the first Black mayor of Charlotte, a prominent architect in North Carolina history. To see all of them wrapped up in the same area was really heartwarming for me.”

— Pierce Freelon, professor, Grammy nominated producer and musician, and community advocate


As he thanked his dad for building so many wonderful landmarks in North Carolina, Freelon mentioned the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, Hillside Highschool in Durham, The Durham Bull stadium, and the Harvey Gantt Center in Charlotte. “I think it is awesome that we are lifting up the voices of our ancestors, especially on MLK Jr. Day,” he said.


“Hiding in plain sight is the physical manifestation of our labor, because most of the historic structures in this country were built by, constructed by Black people… and yet those stories have never been told.”

— Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation (2020)


Stormie Forte, the first Black woman to serve on the Raleigh City Council (District D), spoke about enslaved ancestors who had connections to Springhill Plantation.


“We have a deep history of Black architects and engineers participating in the development of the city as well as the state. A lot of that history is not well known. It is great that we have an opportunity today to enlighten folks about some of that history and celebrate their achievements.”

— Councilwoman Stormie Fort, District D, first Black woman to serve on the Raleigh City Council


The exhibitions are the result of a partnership between the Dix Park Conservancy, Preservation NC, and the City of Raleigh Museum.



"We Built This" Preservation North Carolina


"If These Walls Could Talk: Exhibits Tell Stories of Dix Park's Past, NC's Black Architects" Preservation North Carolina


"'We Built This': A Look at North Carolina's architectural past" TechnicianOnline.com


"Preservation NC Project Explores the Legacy of Black Builders in North Carolina" The Laurel of Asheville