MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In November 2014, Terri Lee Freeman grew to become president of the Nationwide Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Two years later, the Smithsonian Establishment opened its much-heralded Nationwide Museum of African American Historical past and Tradition on the Nationwide Mall in Washington.
The next yr noticed the arrival of the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
In April of the subsequent yr got here the Nationwide Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.
Museums and monuments devoted to civil rights and human rights aren’t precisely in competitors, within the method of drug retailer chains or fast-food eating places. Freeman refers to such establishments as “companion museums,” due to their shared values and mutual curiosity in throwing mild on the nation’s racial historical past and on the contributions of non-white people to the so-called “American experiment.”
Even so, the pre-pandemic increase in “heritage tourism” that occurred throughout Freeman’s six-year tenure on the Civil Rights Museum meant that vacationers looking for to attach with Black historical past had many extra main choices in 2020 than they did in 2014.
The alternate options didn’t have an effect on the museum. Attendance elevated by the tens of hundreds of throughout virtually yearly of Freeman’s tenure on the Civil Rights Museum — a tenure that involves its official shut Feb. 3.
“The Civil Rights Museum is a website the place historical past occurred,” defined Freeman, 60, who introduced her retirement from the Memphis job in December.
“Individuals come to the museum many instances as a pilgrimage. Some individuals do not even come inside, they simply need to see the balcony,” she mentioned, referring to the house exterior Room 306, the place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was felled by an murderer’s bullet on April 4, 1968.
“That’s one thing that’s distinctive to the Lorraine Motel,” she mentioned, “and due to that the museum will at all times be a significant vacation spot.”
Actually, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s shut good friend and colleague, referred to the Lorraine as a “sacred” place in 1989, whereas collaborating within the groundbreaking for the museum. In contrast to most such ceremonies, this occasion was an exorcism in addition to a promotion — an effort to destigmatize the Lorraine and rework a website of Memphis disgrace right into a haven for schooling and uplift.
“You may open civil rights museums in all places else, however none of them have the historic significance the Lorraine has right here in Memphis,” mentioned AutoZone founder J.R. “Pitt” Hyde, a member of the Nationwide Civil Rights Museum board for greater than 25 years.
“The place evokes emotion,” Freeman mentioned. “I might put the Civil Rights Museum up in opposition to any museum within the nation relating to the content material and the emotional expertise individuals have being in that house.”
MLK50, Freedom awards and ‘uncomfortable’ conversations
However the previous is not the museum’s solely draw. Museum officers and supporters credit score Freeman with conserving the establishment alive to the current, too. Actually, the museum functioned as not simply an inspiration however a gathering place for Black Lives Matter activists and different social-justice advocates in the course of the protests of the previous yr, which have been led largely by younger individuals who cannot keep in mind a time when the museum wasn’t a part of the South Essential Historic District panorama.
As if in preparation for such crises, Freeman a number of years in the past launched an ongoing “Unpacking Racism for Motion” program, which enlists company representatives and particular person members for deep-dive “dialogue periods” that study “implicit bias,” “unconscious bias” and “systemic racism.”
“Once I got here right here, I talked so much about individuals being unwilling to have uncomfortable conversations — and this was earlier than all this craziness, earlier than we had a president who to a big diploma stoked a whole lot of division,” Freeman mentioned. “I needed the museum to be a protected house for these uncomfortable however trustworthy conversations about race and what has occurred through the years. You must have the conversations earlier than you possibly can have the therapeutic and discover the options.”
“Most individuals consider a museum as a spot the place you come and go to, you see what’s there, and that is that,” mentioned Herbert Hilliard, retired longtime First Horizon Financial institution govt and chair of the museum’s board of administrators. “However we additionally thought we needs to be a gathering place the place individuals come and share concepts.”
Typically, individuals come from all around the nation to share concepts. That is the case in the course of the museum’s annual Freedom Awards, an occasion that since 1991 has honored such individuals as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Bono of U2, Rosa Parks and, in 2018, Joe Biden. (The 2020 awards have been held nearly; museum officers hope this yr’s awards will once more be an in-person occasion.)
That additionally was the case in the course of the signature occasion of Freeman’s tenure: The “MLK50” recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s dying, which was marked with quite a few seminars and tributes on the museum, and which reunited — most likely for the final time, in some instances — a few of King’s key aides, allies and disciples.
“We centered not on his dying a lot however on his legacy,” Freeman mentioned.
“We inform the civil rights story,” mentioned Religion Morris, chief advertising and exterior affairs officer with the museum. “Do not spend time with us in case you do not need to know the reality.
“That’s the reason we affiliate with students, with individuals who have as their enterprise digging deep into what the problems are, and what has occurred by means of historical past, and discovering parallels and classes for what’s going on now.”
Subsequent cease: Reginald F. Lewis Museum
The conclusion of Freeman’s run as solely the museum’s second president (her predecessor, Beverly Robertson, was within the job for 17 years) ends shut to 6 years of back-and-forth journey between Memphis and Maryland for Freeman’s husband, Dr. Bowyer Freeman, longtime pastor of New St. Mark Baptist Church in Baltimore.
It additionally marks the tip of a very turbulent yr for Freeman.
As if managing the museum’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and to the crises that impressed the Black Lives Matter protests wasn’t traumatic sufficient, Freeman spent a lot of the yr recuperating from a automobile wreck that broke her knee and ankle (the wreck occurred on Jan. 15 — King’s birthday). And on Aug. 5, her mom, Barbara Lee Chaney, who had moved to Memphis to be together with her daughter when Freeman was employed to run the Civil Rights Museum, died of lung most cancers on the age of 83.
“She was my greatest good friend — and my date when my husband wasn’t on the town,” mentioned Freeman, an solely little one who basically was raised by her mom after her mother and father divorced.
With the couple’s three daughters grown, the time appeared proper for husband and spouse to reunite on a fulltime foundation, Freeman mentioned. However again in Maryland, she is not going to be a homebody. She has accepted what she classifies as one ultimate institutional problem: She is the brand new govt director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American Historical past and Tradition, which opened in 2005 in Baltimore’s “Internal Harbor” space.
“I did assume this was going to be my final gig,” she mentioned of the Memphis museum submit. “However I simply wasn’t able to cease working but.” She mentioned the Lewis Museum is “smaller in scope, however with the same mission.”
Freeman grew up in Chicago, with out siblings however as a part of a household crammed with artists (together with a cartoonist grandfather) and activists who have been typically each: Her mom was a ballet teacher who additionally labored on the Chicago City League.
A devoted scholar, Freeman skipped from fourth to sixth grade, and entered school at 16. Like her mom, nonetheless, she was bodily in addition to cerebral: She studied ballet, and as an undergrad she was a flag-twirling Flyerette for the College of Dayton marching band.
After incomes levels at Dayton and at Howard College in Washington, Freeman made a reputation for herself as an administrator with the D.C.-area Neighborhood Basis for the Nationwide Capital Area. She enormously expanded the charity’s outreach, which helps clarify why a nationwide search agency employed by the Civil Rights Museum tapped her as Robertson’s successor.
What’s subsequent for Nationwide Civil Rights Museum?
Hilliard mentioned the board once more will rent a agency to conduct a “nationwide search” for Freeman’s substitute.
“We do not search for somebody who’s only a museum supervisor,” he mentioned. “We search for somebody who can handle a company. We search for somebody who can handle a enterprise.”
The Nationwide Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991, and is operated as a personal nonprofit establishment; though the state of Tennessee owns the historic Lorraine Motel itself, the museum doesn’t obtain authorities funding, and raises income for its roughly $10 million finances (which incorporates compensation for near 50 staffers) from admissions, memberships, museum store gross sales, facility leases and personal donations.
In 2012, the museum closed for a $27.5 million renovation, reopening its 52,000 sq. ft of exhibit house in 2014, as if to herald the arrival of its new president. Little question the expanded displays in addition to Freeman’s insurance policies helped enhance ticketed attendance, which jumped from 251,488 in 2015 to a report 339,284 in 2018.
Attendance dropped considerably the subsequent yr, after which, after all, was devastated in 2020 by the closures and journey restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID has been actually the best problem we needed to handle,” Freeman mentioned. “However the optimistic facet was how we realized to make use of the digital world. Doing that basically considerably rising our attain in a whole lot of methods, as a result of anyone can log into the positioning from anyplace.”
Hyde, the longtime NCRM board member, mentioned the board is “assured we’ll provide you with one other nice director,” even when the pandemic has created some changes to the method.
“You may’t usher in an individual and interview them,” Hilliard mentioned. “But when you are able to do an inauguration nearly, you are able to do a search nearly.”
Added Hyde: “You by no means know the way lengthy it’s going to take, however the sooner the higher, so far as we’re involved. We hope that inside three or 4 months we’ll have a pacesetter.”
Freeman mentioned such latest occasions because the assault on the Capitol in Washington by rioters carrying Accomplice flags and flashing “white energy” indicators are alarming however not dispiriting. She agrees with the phrases of Dr. King, who mentioned “the arc of the ethical universe is lengthy, however it bends towards justice.”
“We should preserve our eyes open,” Freeman mentioned. “We can not grow to be complacent. We’ve got to know that attitudes of hate are very prevalent, however we should always at all times have hope. Younger individuals, they will push ahead, they will demand insurance policies which can be honest and equitable.
“Understanding that little boys and little ladies who’re brown and black can see themselves reaching the best ranges of presidency on this nation is basically necessary. Just like the saying goes, ‘When you do not see it, you possibly can’t be it.”