Archiving African American Folklife

A man plays a cigar box fiddle
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. The collection is a gift from the Kohler Foundation, a family foundation that supports the arts and education.

Carolina now gains access to a massive compilation of 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.

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.

“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.”

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