Profile: Roland L. Freeman (1936-)

Roland L. Freeman is a photographer and award-winning documenter of Southern folk culture and African-American quilters. He is the president of The Group for Cultural Documentation based in Washington, D.C.

Early life

Roland Freeman was born in Baltimore, Maryland. As a youth, his future life’s work was inspired when he discovered the Depression-era photography of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, which focused on raising social consciousness, as well as the work of Farm Security Administration photographers. When Freeman was 14, he met author and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who would also be a great influence on his subsequent career.

Freeman served in the US Air Force from 1954 to 1958. He began taking photographs in the DC area in 1963, inspired by the March on Washington.

In 1968, he not only participated in but also documented the Poor People’s Campaign and the Mule Train trip from Marks, Mississippi, to the nation’s capital.

He worked as a stringer for Time and Magnum Photos, including coverage as a White House photographer. In 1997, Freeman was named the Eudora Welty Visiting Professor of Southern Studies at Millsaps College (Jackson, MS).

Career as photo documentarian

In 1970, he co-directed the Mississippi FolkLife Project for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. In 1972, he became a research associate there.

In that capacity, Freeman photographed staff at the White House, including Mrs. Lillian Rogers Parks, who worked there for 30 years. Several of Freeman’s photographs of African Americans at the White House are included in “The Working White House” webpage.

“While There is Still Time”

Freeman has for years been working on a self-assigned project “While There Is Still Time,” a study of Black culture throughout the African Diaspora. He uses the camera as a tool to research, document, and interpret the continuity of traditional African-American folklife practices. This work is generally done in close collaboration with folklorists, historians, sociologistsimages-1 and community activists, often in methodologically innovative ways that have been integral to his contributions to the work of photographers of his generation.

Influence on American quilt history

Freeman has spent more than 20 years photographing African-American quilters and guilds. He collected biographic information about the quilters’ lives and their motivations for quiltmaking. He also documented collectors of African-American-made quilts.

A Communion of the Spirits was a landmark American quilt history book, as no one else prior to Freeman had performed a national survey of Black quilters. The book covers 38 states and the District of Columbia. Quilt guilds documented in A Communion of the Spirits include: The African American Quilters of Baltimore, the Freedom Quilting Bee of Alberta, AL, the African American Quilters of Los Angeles, and more. Quilt collectors included Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall.

An exhibit of Freeman’s quilt photographs are on permanent collection at the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, MS. In 2008, he organized a quilt exhibition to celebrate President Obama.


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