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Wilson Library acquires life's work of Roland L. Freeman

Community Elders, Mississippi, July 1975

A photograph from the Roland L Freeman Collection in Wilson Library shows a group of 5 older black men sitting in wooden chairs on the front porch of a wooden house. 

Photo Courtesy of Roland L. Freeman, Community Elders, Mississippi, July 1975.

Over 50 years of photographs documenting Black life in the South and across America are now being housed in University Libraries' Special Collections. 

The Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Library recently acquired the work of Roland L. Freeman, a prolific Black photographer who has spent his career documenting Black folk artistry, community traditions and public figures. 

“There are so many images in this collection that are nowhere else,” Glenn Hinson, a professor of folklore and longtime collaborator of Freeman’s, said. “Of all of the documentary work that’s been done with Black Southern communities, Roland captures something that, I would argue, no one else has captured nearly as fully.”  

The collection’s 10,000 photographic prints, along with slides, negatives, contact sheets and Freeman’s archival papers, will be available for research and viewing later this year.  

This work is a gift from the Kohler Foundation, an organization with a focus on art preservation and education. Steven Weiss, Wilson’s Southern Folklife Collection curator, said the foundation has started purchasing photograph collections like Freeman’s and placing them with institutions. 

The Southern Folklife Collection contains thousands of archival materials devoted to the American South, including music, art and cultural objects.

Black and white photograph of an older black man playing a cigar box fiddle. Photo Courtesy of Roland L. Freeman, Cigar Box Fiddler Scott Dunbar, Mississippi, 1975.

“One of the things that’s so important about this collection is that the photographs are really taken from a humanist perspective, which adds a lot of depth to the library’s holdings,” Weiss said.

Across the subjects he explored and continues to look at through his career, Hinson said that Freeman collaborated with the people and communities in his photographs to capture their lives in ways that they would be proud of.

Freeman saw worlds of creativity and resilience in traditions like creating quilts, cigar box fiddles, hand-carved walking sticks or homemade church hats, Hinson said.

“It’s the breadth of things that he’s arguing — if we’re going to look at portraits of Black Southern life, we have to look at all of these places of wonder and magnificence,” he said.

Freeman grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, where he was “fully engaged in the world of grassroots creativity and vitality,” Hinson said. Freeman’s career began in the 1960s while documenting and photographing the Civil Rights Movement. 

Carl Kenney, an adjunct journalism instructor and film producer, said the collection’s placement suggests Freeman’s trust in UNC and the University Libraries' vital role in preserving Black history. 

“It’s really important to understand, historically and culturally, what pictures mean to the Black community,” he said. “It’s a way of shifting the narrative about what it means to be Black in America.” 

Freeman’s photographs reshape and reimagine what life in America should be, and he anticipates using them in his future documentary work and research, Kenney added. 

Weiss said he is excited to see how historians, students, filmmakers and others use the materials in the collection now that they are in an active research environment. 

He said the gift from the Kohler Foundation also includes a $20,000 grant, which will aid the University Libraries in digitizing and preserving the materials.

“It opens up a new era of discovery, within the Southern Folklife Collection, for people to come and experience the materials, but also be able to have open access to them,” Weiss said. “Whether it’s in a formal or an informal way like an exhibit or an online exhibit.” 

The collection will be on view during the Recent Acquisitions Evening at the Wilson Special Collections Library on April 27. 

“It’s a unique perspective,” Weiss said. “And for the Southern Folklife Collection, it is a new perspective.”

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Emi Maerz

Emi Maerz is a 2023-24 assistant lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously covered UNC for the university desk. Emi is a sophomore pursuing a double major in journalism and media and dramatic art.