Nationwide Civil Rights Museum president leaves mark on web site

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – In November 2014, Terri Lee Freeman became president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Two years later, the Smithsonian Institution opened its highly regarded National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington.

The following year, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum arrived in Jackson.

In April of the next year, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Legacy Museum took place in Montgomery, Alabama.

Museums and monuments that stand up for civil and human rights are not exactly in competition, like drugstores or fast food restaurants. Freeman calls such institutions “partner museums” because they share common values ​​and interests in shedding light on the racial history of the country and the contributions of non-whites to the so-called “American experiment”.

Even so, the pre-pandemic “cultural tourism” boom that took place during Freeman’s six-year tenure at the Civil Rights Museum meant that black history travelers had far more important options in 2020 than in 2014.

The alternatives didn’t affect the museum. Attendance increased by tens of thousands almost every year during Freeman’s tenure at the Civil Rights Museum – a term that officially ends on February 3.

“The Civil Rights Museum is a place where history happened,” said 60-year-old Freeman, who announced her resignation from her job in Memphis in December.

“People often come to museums as pilgrims. Some people don’t even get in, they just want to see the balcony, ”she said, referring to the room outside of room 306 where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was hit by an assassin bullet on April 4, 1968.

“It’s something unique about the Lorraine Motel,” she said, “and that’s why the museum will always be a meaningful destination.”

In fact, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s close friend and colleague, referred to Lorraine as a “holy” place in 1989 while attending the groundbreaking ceremony for the museum. Unlike most such ceremonies, this event was both an exorcism and a promotion – an attempt to destigmatize Lorraine and turn a place of Memphis shame into a sanctuary for education and exaltation.

“You can open civil rights museums anywhere, but none of them have the historical significance that Lorraine has here in Memphis,” said AutoZone founder JR “Pitt” Hyde, a member of the National Civil Rights Museum for more than 25 years.

“The place evokes emotions,” said Freeman. “I would put the Civil Rights Museum against any museum in the country when it comes to the content and the emotional experience people have in that space.”


But the past isn’t the museum’s only draw. Museum officials and supporters credit Freeman for keeping the institution alive to this day. In fact, the museum acted not only as an inspiration, but also a meeting place for Black Lives Matter activists and other social justice advocates during last year’s protests, largely led by young people who cannot remember a time like that Museum was not part of the landscape of the South Main Historic District.

As if in preparation for such crises, Freeman started an ongoing program a few years ago to “Unpack Racism for Action”, in which company representatives and individual participants are invited to in-depth “dialogue sessions” in which “implicit bias”, “unconscious bias” and ” unconscious bias “Systemic Racism.”

“When I came here, I talked a lot about people not being willing to have awkward conversations – and that was before all this weirdness, before we had a president who, in large part, caused a lot of division,” Freeman said. “I wanted the museum to be a safe place for these awkward but honest conversations about races and the events of the years. You have to have the conversations before you can heal and find the solutions. “

“Most people think of a museum as a place to come and see what’s there, and that’s it,” said Herbert Hilliard, long-time retired executive of First Horizon Bank and chairman of the museum’s board of directors. “But we also thought we should be a meeting place where people come and exchange ideas.”

Sometimes people come from all over the country to exchange ideas. Such is the case with the museum’s annual Freedom Awards, which since 1991 has honored people like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Bono from U2, Rosa Parks and 2018 Joe Biden. (The 2020 awards were held virtually. Museum officials hope this year’s awards will again be a face-to-face event.)

This was also the case during Freeman’s tenure signature event: The recognition of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King through “MLK50”, which was marked with numerous seminars and honors in the museum and – probably for the last time – reunited. in some cases – some of the king’s most important assistants, allies and disciples.

“We didn’t focus so much on his death as on his legacy,” said Freeman.

“We tell the story of civil rights,” said Faith Morris, the museum’s marketing and field officer. “Don’t spend time with us if you don’t want to know the truth.

“That’s why we work with scientists, with people who have made it their business to dig deeply into the issues and events in history and find parallels and lessons for what is going on now.”


Freeman’s run as the only second president of the museum (her predecessor Beverly Robertson served for 17 years) ends for Freeman’s husband, Dr. Bowyer Freeman with nearly six years of traveling back and forth between Memphis and Maryland, longtime pastor of New St. Mark Baptist Church in Baltimore.

It’s also the end of a particularly turbulent year for Freeman.

As if dealing with the museum’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the crises sparked by the Black Lives Matter protests weren’t stressful enough, Freeman recovered from a car wreck that struck her knee and for much of the year Ankle broke (the wreck occurred) on January 15th – King’s birthday). And on August 5, her mother, Barbara Lee Chaney, who had moved to Memphis to be with her daughter when Freeman was hired to head the Civil Rights Museum, died of lung cancer at the age of 83.

“She was my best friend – and my date when my husband was out of town,” said Freeman, an only child who was essentially raised by her mother after her parents divorced.

After the couple’s three daughters grew up, it seemed right for the husband and wife to reunite on a full-time basis, Freeman said. But back in Maryland she won’t be a homebody. She has accepted what she sees as one final institutional challenge: She is the new director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Maryland, which opened in Baltimore’s “Inner Harbor” in 2005.

“I thought this was going to be my last gig,” she said of the mail at the Memphis Museum. “But I just wasn’t ready to quit yet.” She said the Lewis Museum is “smaller but with a similar mission”.

Freeman grew up in Chicago with no siblings but as part of a family full of artists (including a cartoonist grandfather) and activists who were sometimes both: her mother was a ballet teacher and also worked in the Chicago Urban League.

A dedicated student, Freeman skipped fourth through sixth grades and entered college at 16. Like her mother, however, she was both physical and cerebral: she studied ballet and as a student she was a flag-swirl flyerette for the University of Dayton marching band.

After graduating from Dayton and Howard University in Washington, Freeman made a name for herself as an administrator at the DC Area Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. She greatly expanded the charity’s reach, which explains why a national search firm hired by the Civil Rights Museum named her as Robertson’s successor.

What’s next for the National Museum of Civil Rights?

Hilliard said the board would hire another company to conduct a “national search” for Freeman’s replacement.

“We’re not looking for someone who is just a museum manager,” he said. “We’re looking for someone who can run an organization. We are looking for someone who can run a business. “

The National Civil Rights Museum opened in 1991 and is operated as a private not-for-profit organization. Although the state of Tennessee owns the historic Lorraine Motel itself, the museum receives no government funding and generates approximately $ 10 million in revenue for its budget (including compensation for nearly 50 employees) from admissions, memberships, museum shop sales, and rentals Institutions and private donations.

In 2012, the museum closed for a $ 27.5 million renovation, and reopened its 52,000-square-foot exhibition space in 2014, as if to mark the arrival of its new president. Undoubtedly, Freeman’s expanded exhibits, as well as guidelines, have helped drive traffic to tickets, which rose from 251,488 in 2015 to a record high of 339,284 in 2018.

Visitor numbers fell a bit over the next year and were of course destroyed in 2020 by the closings and travel restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID really was the biggest challenge we faced,” said Freeman. “But the positive side was how we learned to use the virtual world. This significantly increases our reach in many ways, as anyone can log into the website from anywhere. “

Hyde, the longtime NCRM board member, said the board was “confident we will find another great director,” even as the pandemic has made some adjustments to the process.

“You can’t bring a person in and interview them,” said Hilliard. “But if you can do an initiation virtually, you can do a virtual search.”

Hyde added, “You never know how long it will take, but the sooner the better as far as we are concerned. We hope to have a guide within three or four months. “

Freeman said recent events, such as the attack by rioters with Confederate flags on the Washington Capitol and flashing “white power” signals, were alarming but not disheartening. She agrees with the words of Dr. King, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice.”

“We have to keep our eyes open,” said Freeman. “We can’t get complacent. We need to understand that attitudes of hate are very common, but we should always have hope. Young people, they will move forward, they will demand policies that are fair and just.

“It is really important to know that little boys and girls who are brown and black can reach the highest levels of government in this nation. As the saying goes, “If you don’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Comments are closed.