Freelon's father marketed medical equipment and supplies; his mother was an elementary school teacher. A sister, Randi Vega, is the director of cultural affairs for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts. His paternal grandfather, Allan Freelon, was a gifted painter who worked in an impressionistic style and was active in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s. He was also one of the first African-American educators in the Philadelphia public school system.
Gloucester, Mass., the streets of Philadelphia. That attitude was not lost on his grandson.
"I didn't know him well, but I certainly remember him," Phil Freelon says. "W.E.B. Dubois was a colleague and a friend of his. African-American intellectuals of the time would come by his house. To have that kind of heritage in your family is motivational and inspirational."
Phil Freelon went to Hampton University, then transferred to North Carolina State University, where he earned a degree in architecture. He earned his master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In many courses, Freelon says, he was the only African-American student.
In 1979, he married Chinyere Nnenna Pierce, a budding singer from Cambridge, Mass., he met when she came to North Carolina with the idea of attending graduate school. Nnenna Freelon is now a jazz star who performs internationally. The couple have three grown children.
By the mid-1980s, Phil Freelon was making a name for himself at O'Brien Atkins Associates, a large architecture firm in North Carolina's "Research Triangle," but longed for more responsibility. In 1989, he took a leave of absence to become a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. While there, he wrote a business plan for a firm he envisioned starting, a company that would emphasize diversity and have offices up and down the East Coast. While planning his ideal firm, he noted the need for institutions that would celebrate African-American heritage - and the opportunities for architects who designed their homes.
A year later, Freelon gave notice at his old firm and launched his own practice. Today, the Freelon Group has 55 employees in two offices and works on a variety of projects, from airport terminals and hospitals to corporate headquarters and campus buildings.
Freelon's African-American museum design specialty began as an outgrowth of his campus work. The first projects were modest renovations of existing buildings to create gallery and meeting space. By the late 1990s, he had designed three African-American projects in North Carolina.
Baltimore's museum was a career breakthrough because it showed that the Freelon Group could expand its work to another state. Since beginning work in Baltimore, the Freelon Group has been hired to design the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University in New Orleans, and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, N.C., and to complete a feasibility study for relocating the African American Museum in Philadelphia. Although these projects represent just a fraction of his practice, Freelon is working on more African-American themed museums and cultural centers than any other architect in America, black or white.
If there is any common thread to the museums, Freelon says, it's that they all use architecture to tell powerful stories. The civil rights museum in Greensboro, for example, will open inside the old Woolworth's building where four black college students staged a sit-in at the lunch counter in 1960 because the store wouldn't serve them.
Like the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, these museums may present shameful moments in history - examples of bigotry and hatred and abuse. But they also show what happened after those shameful moments, and the contributions African-Americans have made to the United States in spite of the persecution they have endured.
"It's not all about being a victim," Freelon says. "The important part is that we persevered."
Much of what Freelon does is to lead a team that works closely with clients and guides them in creating the sort of place they want. He sees himself as a facilitator for others' visions, rather than a heavy-handed designer who imposes his own. To do that, he says, it helps to have an architect who understands what the clients want to do.
"A lot of architects are designing museums," he says. But "it's important to be of the culture if you're talking about a culture-specific museum."
Bowden was born in the small town of Great Falls, S.C., and moved with his family at the age of 3 to Charleston, where his parents were teachers. He soaked up the well-mannered buildings and public spaces of historic Charleston and worked for his uncle's construction company. At 18, seeking a career in architecture, he enrolled at Howard University to get his undergraduate degree.
Bowden says he wasn't afraid that the color of his skin would be a barrier to his career goals, and he didn't seek out African-American role models.
"I didn't know anybody who was an African-American architect," he says. "I didn't know you had to know anybody who was an African-American architect. ... I was taught that you can achieve anything when you don't put boundaries on yourself."