National Endowment for the Arts Statement on the Death of National Heritage Fellow Roland Freeman

Two men sitting on a stage talking with one another. The man on the left is holding a microphone up for the man on the right

Roland Freeman speaks with Nick Spitzer (2023 Bess Lomax Hawes Fellow) during the 2007 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert. Photo by Michael G. Stewart

Washington, DC—It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of Roland Freeman, recipient of a 2007 NEA National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. For his work as a photo documentarian, Freeman received the Bess Lomax Hawes Award, which is presented each year in recognition of significant contribution to the preservation and awareness of cultural heritage. 

“I started taking pictures in '63. 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 NEA in an interview about receiving the honor.

Freeman was inspired by the socially conscious Depression-era photography of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava as well as the Farm Security Administration photographers. At age 14, he met the author/folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, who also greatly influenced his life's work. A native of Baltimore, he began photographing in the Washington, DC area in the late 1960s. In 1968, he participated in and documented the Poor People's Campaign and the Mule Train trip from Marks, Mississippi, to the nation's capital. Even while working as a stringer for Time and Magnum Photos, including coverage as a White House photographer, his real passion throughout his career was the documentation of Southern folk culture.

In the early 1970s, Freeman co-directed the Mississippi Folklife Project for the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and was a research associate/field research photographer with the Center. That work resulted in the exhibition Mississippi Tradition and Change. His interest in craft traditions led to his documentation and collection of quilts made by African Americans long before others were taking an interest in this distinct but little-recognized artistic tradition. This work resulted in the publication of two books: Something to Keep You Warm and A Communion of the Spirits: African-American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories.

In 1990, Freeman consolidated two decades of documentation of the disappearing tradition of Baltimore street vendors, many of whom still used horse-drawn carts, for a major exhibition titled Arabbers of Baltimore at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the publication of a similarly titled book.

In 1991, Freeman founded the Group for Cultural Documentation (TGCD) and served as president. Although no longer a tax-exempt organization, the TGCD website has been retained for archival purposes for the benefit of the general public and as a testament to the lifetime work of Freeman. 

In addition to his NEA National Heritage Fellowship, Freeman was the first photographer to be awarded a Young Humanist Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities (1970), has received two Masters of Photography Visual Arts Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (1982, 1991), the Living Legend Award for Distinguished Achievement in Photography from the National Black Arts Festival (1994), and an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Millsaps College (Jackson, MS; 1997), among many other awards and honors during his lifetime.

Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill’s University Libraries announced they had acquired the archive of Freeman’s work, consisting 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. “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.


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