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Pierce Freelon: Educator, community organizer, state Senate District 20 candidate

Pierce Freelon leaned on the lectern in front of North Carolina Central University’s Thursday evening “Black Women’s Activism” class. As he spoke, the state Senate District 20 candidate drifted between stump speech and lecture, connecting current politics and history.

As he lauded activism by black women, including the 1957 Royal Ice Cream Sit-in on Dowd Street, the class’s professor, Baiyina Muhammad, mentioned Takiyah Thompson was taking the course when she toppled a Confederate monument in Durham in August 2017.

“Of course she was,” said Freelon, a smile spreading across his face. “Doesn’t surprise me one bit.”

Freelon told the students about his 2017 Durham mayoral campaign. He lost, but his policy visions, like a jobs guarantee and support for a now-abandoned light rail plan helped give him momentum to enter a state race, he said. 

“When you come up and present ideas that are truly visionary, people are going to look at you funny,” Freelon said. “That’s what trailblazing is. It’s the person in the front with the machete, they’re getting all the scratches and the bruises.”

The 36-year-old candidate is an arts entrepreneur, community organizer, college lecturer and politician. He is the son of Nnenna Freelon, the Grammy-nominated jazz singer, and the late Philip Freelon, a renowned architect who designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. 

In a primary race against two Democrats — attorney Gray Ellis and Durham County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor Natalie Murdock — Freelon has been endorsed by some of Durham politics’ biggest names and organizations: Mayor Steve Schewel, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Triangle Labor Council, Mayor Pro-Tempore Jillian Johnson and Bill Bell, Durham’s former longtime mayor.

The candidates are vying for a seat vacated by veteran state Sen. Floyd McKissick, who resigned in January to serve on the state’s public utilities commission. Whoever wins Tuesday’s vote is likely to become senator since voters in District 20, which includes Durham, are highly unlikely to send a Republican to Raleigh. John Tarantino, a former teacher who has lost several races for local seats, is the GOP candidate.

Pierce Freelon watches presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham rally in February. Photo by Jake Sheridan

The three Democrats share many views, Freelon said, like support for Medicaid expansion, teacher raises and environmental protection.  

But Freelon — who calls himself “the lefty of the bunch” — thinks he goes further, pointing to his stances for greater police accountability and marijuana decriminalization.

“My positions on criminal justice aren’t things that I see being adamantly pursued by the other candidates,” said Freelon, who recently opened for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Durham presidential campaign rally.

Some of his platform’s major goals include: reparations, which are payments or other amends for descendants of enslaved people or others treated unjustly; an end to gerrymandering in North Carolina through independent redistricting; a $15 minimum wage; abolishing the death penalty; automatic voter registration; and campaign finance reform.

The death of his father last July from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) had a major impact on his stances, particularly around healthcare. 

“You have principles — things you believe in — and then you have experiences that give you a front-row seat to how policy is relevant in people’s daily lives,” Freelon said. “That was a front-row seat in many ways: to health care, disability… the right to die.”

Freelon said he is passionate about education, and has long supported more funding for historically black colleges & universities and state-wide equity in public school spending. 

In 2013, he founded Blackspace, a digital makerspace that teaches local black and brown children about music, filmmaking and coding, and has developed alternative hip-hop high school curriculums. Freelon also is artistic director for  Northstar Church of the Arts, which he founded with his parents. 

He said he believes being the only Durham native candidate helps him stand out. 

“I have skin in the game that puts me in a unique position to lead in the city that produced me,” Freelon said. 

The ongoing crisis at Durham public housing complex McDougald Terrace, where 270 families were evacuated last month due to carbon monoxide leaks and other dangers, was “personal” for Freelon. He said he grew up with some residents and now mentors children there. McDougald Terrace Resident Council President Ashley Canady has endorsed him. 

Pierce Freelon carries signs and campaign materials for the state senate race. Photo by Jake Sheridan

Longtime Democratic state Rep Mickey Michaux, who was temporarily appointed to fill McKissick’s senate seat after he resigned, has endorsed him.

But McKissick—who held the seat for 13 years—told 9th Street he has some concerns about Freelon’s lack of experience. 

“I think he’ll be at a serious disadvantage were he to be elected not having any of the city government experience or academic training,” he said. “I think it’s important to have other perspectives, but it’s really important to be able to read a law.”

Freelon served on the NC Arts Council and is vice chair of the Durham Human Relations Commission, but has no elected office or law experience.

McKissick’s criticism doesn’t deter Freelon. “I think that one of the unique skill sets I bring given my background as an artist as an ability to communicate with a fluency that I don’t see in a lot of people trained in law school,” he said. 

He added that his arts residencies throughout conservative rural North Carolina showcase his work to bridge ideological gaps.

Schewel told 9th Street in an interview that he thinks Freelon has “experience as a leader.” He praised him for his progressive agenda and good-natured 2017 campaign, calling Freelon an “exceptionally open person.”

“He extends his warmth and his amazing creative powers to really embrace so many people and so many communities,” Schewel said.

Freelon’s ability to lead and communicate seemed to work in the NCCU class. Towards the end of his mini-lecture, he made a plea to the room of all black women.

“We need you,” Freelon said. “And I will be your ally, because I’ve been trained and raised by radical black womanists who I carry with me.”  

When he finished, he pulled out a sign up sheet and offered the students an opportunity to work for his campaign. Nearly half put their names down. 

Top photo: State Senate District 20 candidate Pierce Freelon speaks at a forum at Duke University. Photo by Corey Pilson

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