Enslaved plasterer William Benjamin Gould didn’t know if anyone would see his initials at the Bellamy Mansion in Wilmington, but he carved them into decorative plaster anyway, silently signing his work some time before 1862.
The scribbled, crafty “WBG” screamed through history when it was discovered more than a century later during a restoration of the historic home in 1993.
This piece of history is revealed in two exhibits – “From Plantation to Park” and “We Built This” – about the physical history of North Carolina. They are in a new pop-up museum at Dorothea Dix Park which was unveiled on Saturday.
“From Plantation to Park” examines the history of Dix Park, from its days as a Native American hunting ground, its 150 years as Spring Hill Plantation and later the founding of North Carolina’s first hospital treating mental illnesses . It leads to its current use as Raleigh’s largest public park.
“We Built This” tells the stories of black North Carolina architects and designers, many of whom were enslaved and whose contributions were reduced or erased from history.
The exhibits, a partnership between the Dix Park Conservancy, Preservation NC and the Museum of the City of Raleigh, are on view in the All Faiths Chapel at Dix Park through Feb. 27.
With Raleigh’s skyline through the bare January trees, Preservation NC President Myrick Howard said the buildings keep the past alive in ways other stories can’t, tying the thread generations through the spaces we inhabit. Although it’s made of bricks and stone, Howard said it was a valuable story.
“When our buildings are preserved, they can tell us stories,” Howard said. “Some of these stories are horrifying. Some of these stories are inspiring. But when the buildings disappear, the stories tend to disappear too.
Nearly 25 years ago, Preservation NC hosted an exhibit on the state’s black architects and builders, taking the show to about 20 locations across North Carolina. Howard said the time had come to refresh the exhibit and launch it into a new context.
“There’s a lot more information now than there was 15, 20 years ago,” Howard said. “Our hope is that there will be a lot more new information 15 years from now and that the next round of this exhibit will be even bigger.”
Saturday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend Opening Ceremony featured a performance by Grammy-nominated artist Pierce Freelon. Her 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 of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is displayed in the pop-up museum in Dix Park.
Pierce Freelon said sharing the stories of black architects throughout history will inspire the next generation of builders.
“Growing up, my dad didn’t know a lot of black architects,” Freelon said. “But he knew Julian Abele, who built the Duke’s Chapel.”
A sign of things to come
Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin said the pop-up museum builds on the momentum around Dix Park, a site she says can serve people across the city.
“I’m really excited about this pop-up event because it’s one of the first,” Baldwin said. “And there will be many firsts at Dix Park, bringing us together as a community. … It’s really about connection and how we’re all connected. When we realize 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 packed with visitors. Museum organizers said the exhibits are part of an effort to raise awareness of the park’s history as it continues to draw more and more people.
Orage Quarles, president of the Dix Park Conservancy and former publisher of The News & Observer, cited Frederick Douglass’ founding of a newspaper, The North Star, which referred to the North Star as a celestial guide for slaves in quest for freedom in the North.
“What we’re building here at Dix Park will hopefully be the North Star,” Quarles said. “It will be the star where you can go to recover your mental, it will be the star where you can go to recover your physical and it will be a star where you can go to recover your emotional. … We are 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 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Free entry.