Conversations on race, culture
The new director of Maryland’s museum of African American history and culture has bigger things in mind than cataloguing or explaining events and artworks of the past.
Terri Lee Freeman takes over as executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore on Feb. 15, at a time when the country is focused anew on the issue of racism. She hopes to involve the museum and its visitors in the larger conversation about race in our times.
It’s something she has done successfully before, as president for the past six years of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.
Freeman said she is happy to be returning to her longtime home in Columbia, Maryland, where she and her husband raised their three daughters, now grown.
Museum as meeting place
Freeman, 60, said in a recent interview with the Beacon that she sees the current role of museums not only as places to exhibit great art and historic artifacts, but also as “platforms for people to learn about issues and how they can get involved. This includes presentations, panel dialogues, town halls, author talks and artist talks.”
In today’s turbulent times, present-day social movements have become important factors in judging what museums should be, Freeman said.
“Museums are changing now, seeing their role in the community differently. You used to go to the museum mainly for exhibits on history, culture, art.
“Art, of course, is always relevant, but things take on new meaning in politically and socially changing times. One of the museum’s roles now is to explore those changes,” Freeman said.
For example, after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis last June, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., launched an initiative called Dialogues on Race, citing “the benefits in having open dialogue about race and racism.”
Freeman also pointed to a recent audio exhibit at the National Building Museum about evictions of low-income people from their homes and “what happens to them when they are evicted. You could say this is more of a cultural exhibit, relevant to the times — what some people are experiencing.”
Freeman’s work of a similar nature at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis gained her — and the museum — international attention. That museum is located at the site of the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Under her direction, the museum focused for 18 months on King’s legacy, culminating in a three-day commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his assassination.
Several people who had marched and worked with King in the civil rights movement appeared at the event, appearing on the very balcony where King was shot to death 50 years earlier.
Among those participating in the symposium were the late Congressman John Lewis, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa, the former president of Poland, who led its nonviolent Solidarity movement and helped bring democracy to his country.
Just three months ago, Freeman launched a seven-month virtual dialogue program at the Memphis museum called “Unpacking Racism for Action,” where participants discuss issues of bias and structural racism.
One of the program’s goals is to “build skills and nurture willingness to confront issues of racism as they arise in personal and professional settings,” according to the museum’s website.
In a recent press release, the Lewis Museum pointed to the dialogue series as an example of the new director’s “collaborative approach [that] has significantly increased public engagement with the museum.”
Finding a great leader
Lewis Museum Board Chair Drew Hawkins noted that the museum had “launched a nationwide search for someone with the depth of knowledge that Terri brings to the table. Her longstanding passion for bridging communities, and her clear understanding of the museum’s history, as well as our vision for the future, makes Terri a great leader for the Lewis Museum.”
Hawkins told the Baltimore Sun the museum board was “bowled over” by Freeman’s “management and leadership skills…Her fundraising capabilities are unmatched.”
Freeman holds a master’s degree in organizational communication management from Howard University. Before becoming director of the Memphis museum in 2014, Freeman served in D.C. for 18 years as president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, which raises funds for nonprofits and recipients of scholarships.
During her tenure, the foundation’s assets reportedly rose from $52 million to more than $350 million. Prior to that, she was the founding executive director of the Freddie Mac Foundation in D.C.
The Memphis museum Freeman is leaving boasts a $9.7 million budget (which significantly increased during her tenure) and a 50-member staff. She will be leading a smaller institution in Baltimore with a $3.9 million budget and a 20-member staff.
No doubt there is hope she will similarly help transform the Lewis Museum, which relies heavily on donations.
Reunited in Columbia
Freeman noted that personal issues played a significant role in her decision to return to Maryland.
Her husband, Dr. Bowyer G. Freeman, began his ministry at the First Baptist Church of Guildford, in Columbia, and is now senior pastor of the New Saint Mark Baptist Church in Baltimore. For the past six years, with his wife working in Memphis, he has commuted there on weekends.
In a previous interview, Freeman told the Memphis Business Journal about a “pretty bad” car accident she had last January, when she broke her knee and ankle and “was off my feet for 12 weeks. My husband, when I had the accident, wasn’t here… because we’ve been in this kind of commuter marriage for six years.”
Her husband arrived at her bedside soon after the accident, but Freeman said she realized “it was nearing the time for both of us to be in the same place.”
This year, Freeman said her focus at the Lewis Museum will be as it has always been: “How do we take a look at history and inform the public what our present and future will be?
“The thing that I will be doing at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum…is focusing more on cultural issues. So, [the board] will allow me to move into different types of arenas that aren’t really just historical in nature.”
The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is located in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Admission is $8 ($6 for people 65 and over). Due to the pandemic, the museum suggests that visitors purchase a timed-entry ticket in advance on its website, lewismuseum.org. Before you visit in person, call the museum at (443) 263-1800 to verify its hours of operation.