Arts and Humanities

Library acquires archive of Roland L. Freeman, photographer of Black life in Southern U.S.

The Roland L. Freeman Collection is now part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library. It will be available for research and consultation later this year. It is a gift from the Kohler Foundation, a family foundation that supports the arts and education.

A man playing a fiddle.
Roland L. Freeman, Cigar Box Fiddler Scott Dunbar, Mississippi, 1975.

The archive of one of the country’s most important and prolific photographers of Black life in the twentieth century has a new home at UNC-Chapel Hill’s University Libraries.

The Roland L. Freeman Collection is now part of the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library. It will be available for research and consultation later this year. It is a gift from the Kohler Foundation, a family foundation that supports the arts and education.

The collection at Wilson Library is a massive compilation of assignment and project work by Freeman from a career that spans more than fifty years of documenting Black communities, public figures and folk art and artisans. It consists of nearly 24,000 slides, 10,000 photographic prints, 400,000 negatives and 9,000 contact sheets. Also included are publications and an archive of Freeman’s papers.

“The Southern Folklife Collection is deeply honored and excited to preserve and provide access to Roland Freeman’s photographic archive,” said Steve Weiss, curator of the Southern Folklife Collection. “Freeman’s research and documentation of African American Folklife is innovative in its collaborative methodology and a landmark in the study of African American quilters. His collection will be an invaluable resource for students, historians, folklorists, documentary filmmakers and many more groups.”

“The Freeman collection adds depth, dimension and a vivid visual element to our collections, giving us new ways to explore and celebrate the history, culture, and folklife of Black communities in the United States,” said María R. Estorino, vice provost for University libraries and University librarian.

Women working on a quilt.

Roland L. Freeman, Wednesday Night Quilting Sisters of Detroit. Wayne County, Michigan, October 1986.

“Work that no one else has done”

Born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1936, Freeman was inspired to become a photographer after participating in the 1963 March on Washington. His career led him to photograph landmark events, such as the unrest following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign “Mule Train” March on Washington, and Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the United States.

“I was inspired by the March on Washington, and that’s why I started taking pictures. I wanted to say something about the times in which I was living, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since,” Freeman told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007.

Freeman devoted much of his career to documenting Black communities across the South, with a particular emphasis on art, cultural events and folk culture in all its manifestations. He co-directed the Mississippi Folklife Project for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in 1970 and was later a research associate there.

“Roland provides a portrait of Black style and Black aesthetics that is unparalleled in the history of American photography. He understood the possibility of capturing deep narratives of tradition, especially in the Black South and the journey of those traditions in the Great Migration, that no one else has done” said Glenn Hinson, associate professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s department of anthropology and a longtime collaborator with Freeman.

Freeman’s work method is part of what distinguishes him from other documentary photographers, said Hinson. “The brilliance of Roland is that, as a photographer, he is absolutely committed to working collaboratively with those whose photographs he’s taking. He would get to know the person and then work to capture representations that are both deep and deeply honest,” he said.

People sitting on a porch.

Roland L. Freeman, Community Elders, Mississippi, July 1975.

Preserving a rich legacy

The Roland L. Freeman Collection displays the full range of his work and craft. It includes images of well-known figures—jazz musician Miles Davis, author Alice Walker, comedian Richard Pryor and historian John Hope Franklin, among others—as well as scenes of everyday life in cities and towns and the work of craftspeople, artisans and performers.

It also contains photographs from Freeman’s many books and exhibitions. These include “A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories”; “Arabbers of Baltimore,” celebrating the city’s traditional Black street vendors; “Southern Roads/City Pavements: Photographs of Black Americans”; and projects documenting folklife in Mississippi, North Carolina and Philadelphia.

The Kohler Foundation obtained the Freeman collection, organized the materials and presented them to the University Libraries, along with a $20,000 grant that Weiss anticipates using for preservation and digitization work on the collection. In 2021, the Foundation placed the collection of photographer Burk Uzzle, one of Freeman’s mentors, at the University Libraries.

Liesl Testwuide, senior manager of art preservation at the Kohler Foundation said, “We knew the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Library would be an outstanding long-term steward of Roland Freeman’s photography collection because of their commitment to digitization and accessibility and because of our positive experience working with the team on the Burk Uzzle collection. Roland Freeman is a visual anthropologist and now generations will have the chance to better understand the times and communities he documented.”

Selected images from the Roland L. Freeman Collection will be on view as part of the Recent Acquisitions Evening at the Wilson Special Collections Library on Thursday, April 27, 6-8 p.m. The event showcasing new additions to Carolina’s special collections is free and open to the public.