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Roland L. Freeman, photographer who documented Black culture, dies at 87

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Roland L. Freeman, a photographer who documented Black life for more than a half-century including vanishing quilt-making traditions in the rural South and civil rights struggles on the doorstep of the Capitol, died Aug. 7 at his home in the District. He was 87.

Mr. Freeman had heart-related health problems, said his wife, Marcia Freeman.

Mr. Freeman’s self-taught style — using 35-millimeter film, nearly always in black and white since the 1960s — was deeply rooted in documentary traditions of detached observation and intimate portraiture. He also viewed his work as part folklorist and social researcher.

He became a quilt designer himself, using a technique to transfer photographs onto cloth. The patterns were stitched together in Mississippi and elsewhere in quilts intended to reflect Black struggles, solidarity and history.

“I think of my work as a project,” he told a documentary in 1983, “a project that deals with the migration patterns of Black people, what happens to their traditional culture when they leave the rural areas and come to urban areas, how their traditions change, how new ones come about.”

Mr. Freeman’s books and major exhibitions around the world received widespread acclaim for his grass-roots view of Black culture and traditions “that is unparalleled in the history of American photography,” wrote Glenn Hinson, associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The book “The Arabbers of Baltimore” (1989) looked at the once-thriving culture of the city’s mobile street vendors, which had included his uncle and other relatives during his boyhood. The images in “Southern Roads/City Pavements: Photographs of Black Americans” (1981) evoke the history of the Great Migration of Blacks from the South to Northern cities that began in the early 20th century.

Mr. Freeman’s lens was, at times, a glimpse into a passing world. In 1975, he captured fiddler Scott Dunbar in mid-stroke with his bow on a cigar-box violin in Mississippi. In 1985 in Africatown, Ala., a dignified elder, Violet Allen, stared directly into Mr. Freeman’s camera while seated and holding her cane.

Other photos of protests and struggles bridge the decades from the 1960s to the era of Black Lives Matter and modern activism. Mr. Freeman stood at the Mississippi-Alabama border in June 1968 to photograph the passing of the Poor People’s Campaign mule train rolling slowly toward the National Mall in Washington, where protesters erected a “Resurrection City” camp to call attention to chronic poverty.

Five years earlier, Mr. Freeman was in the crowd for the Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. The ripples from the March on Washington set Mr. Freeman’s life work in motion.

Shortly after Rev. King’s speech, 10 photographs from the gathering were displayed in Mr. Freeman’s neighborhood near Eastern Market. Mr. Freeman had already started an interest in photography while stationed in Paris with the Air Force in the 1950s, taking snapshots with a Brownie Hawkeye camera he won in craps game. The images from the National Mall and Rev. King’s speech left him spellbound.

“I stared at those pictures the rest of the night,” Mr. Freeman recalled in a 2021 interview with the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. “I said to myself, ‘This is how I am going to say something about the times in which we live’ … I’m going to be a photographer.”

The next day, he borrowed a Minolta camera from his roommate, whose mother had brought it at a duty-free shop during a Caribbean cruise. The roommate never got the Minolta back. “I wore it out in a couple of years,” Mr. Freeman said. His early style was influenced by the social-justice spirit of photographer Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, whose images of residents in a Harlem tenement reminded Mr. Freeman of his upbringing in Baltimore in a large family where money was tight.

In 1967, Mr. Freeman landed a job at the D.C. Gazette and was the newspaper’s photo editor from 1968 to 1973. After that, he began to roam, always trying to save money by eating on the cheap or charming his way into sleeping on someone’s couch.

For decades, Mr. Freeman crisscrossed the country — back roads in the Deep South, and alleyways and street corners in Northern cities — on projects that became part of his first books, including “Folkroots: Images of Mississippi Black Folklife, 1974—1976” published in 1977, and “Roland L. Freeman, a Baltimore Portfolio, 1968—1979” released in 1979. He also found work as a Washington-based contributor for the international photo agency Magnum and magazines such as Life and Essence.

His interest in folk art and traditions deepened with each road trip, taking photos of people who kept alive the crafts of weaving baskets or woodworking. Above all was Mr. Freeman’s fascination with quilts — as visual stories of communities and the shared bonds of the women who gather to make them. He built a personal collection of about 180 quilts and served on groups including the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.

In his 1996 book on Black quilters, “A Communion of the Spirits,” Mr. Freeman described how he sought “healing” power from quilts as he successfully battled cancer in the early 1990s.

“It isn’t a matter of southern folk culture being so appealing to me. That’s not it,” he told the National Endowment for the Arts in a 2007 interview. “I’m interested in traditional folklife practices. And in a lot of places in the South, a lot of those folklife practices are closer to what they were 50 to 100 years ago than in a lot of other places.”

Roland Leeon Freeman was born July 27, 1936, in Baltimore, where his father worked in construction, and his mother was a homemaker. He struggled in school with undiagnosed dyslexia and increasingly spent his time on the streets. His mother worried about his son’s future if he stayed in Baltimore.

At 12, he was sent to live outside La Plata, Md., with a tobacco-farming family that took in city children. He stayed until he was 18, then served in the Air Force from 1954 to 1958. “I was exposed to the African diaspora,” he said of his time in Paris meeting students and self-exiles from colonial-era Africa. “I had never even heard that word before.”

As Mr. Freeman explored the rural South, he credited his years on the tobacco farm as helping ease suspicions about a newcomer from the city. He could talk with confidence about growing cycles and old-style tricks such as a potato pump, an earthen mound used to preserve vegetables.

“You’re in Mississippi. You run into an old farmer. Maybe you’re at a hog-killing at Percy Creek. You got your cameras but you ain’t snapping yet,” he told The Washington Post in 1993. “You ask him, ‘You put anything in the potato pump this year?’ Suddenly you’ve got his attention.”

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Marcia Elaine Felton; and two half sisters and a half brother.

In one of Mr. Freeman’s rare photographs without a person in the frame, he took an image in a hallway in a home in Americus, Ga., in 1971. Amid the bare lightbulb and vase of plastic flowers, a hazy outline appears in a mirror that is likely Mr. Freeman and his tripod. Next to the mirror is a memorial card with three portraits: President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert and Rev. King.



POST AUTHOR: Brian Murphy

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