As Black history is systemically under attack in books, schools and political offices across the nation, Terri Lee Freeman knows her job is more important than ever.
As the president of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, the state’s largest museum devoted to African American history, Freeman said society is at a crossroads where the accurate telling of history is of the utmost importance.
“In an age where facts seem to be few and far between, museums and organizations that preserve history and culture are critically important to ensuring that the truth is preserved and presented,” said Freeman, who has led the institution since December 2020. “Given the false narratives around African American history that some states are peddling as facts to our children, supplementing with first-source materials and interpretive exhibits and oral histories provide the knowledge that both children and adults need. Culturally specific museums like the Reginald F. Lewis Museum provide that education and context.”
The museum’s location in Baltimore only adds to its authority, which is part of the reason Freeman, who just returned from Nashville for the Association of African American Museums, is excited that that conference will take place in Charm City next year.
“Baltimore is a great American city, but more importantly, it is a majority Black city that is a creative hub for the East Coast. It’s a community where possibilities abound. The art, history, culture, food, music, geography, and neighborhoods will surprise and impress them [conference attendees] in the best ways possible,” said the Columbia resident, who was born and raised in Chicago.
The Baltimore Banner recently spoke to Freeman to discuss everything from the state of history on culture wars to facts about the Lewis museum and its namesake.
What are your thoughts about states like Florida incorrectly revising the history of diverse groups?
It is a racist attempt to make white supremacy appear to be beneficial to Black folk. This revisionist history is an attempt to make white folks feel better about “their” history, not to truly teach our experience in this American experiment. The beneficial skills of the enslaved were skills they brought with them from the Motherland.
What are must-see exhibits at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum?
Of course I’m biased, but all of our exhibits are must-see. The permanent history exhibit teaches the important role African Americans had not just in the development of the state of Maryland, but also in the development of our nation. It teaches the complex history of a state that had one foot in slavery, while also being home to the largest number of free Blacks. The exhibit talks about segregation, but also speaks to our accomplishments and our ability to rise above adversity. It speaks to our creating not just Black culture, but American culture. We typically have two changing exhibits. Currently we have one, “Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined,” which focuses on Afrofuturism and how we see ourselves through the lens of very accomplished African American artists.
Do you remember the first museum you visited? What was it?
I grew up in Chicago, so it was probably the Museum of Science and Industry, the Planetarium or the Shedd Aquarium. Each of these are great museums. But I learned Black history through the stories my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents told me.
Do you have a favorite museum in Baltimore other than the Reginald F. Lewis Museum?
It’s hard to pick a favorite. Each museum, from the Great Blacks in Wax to the Childrens’ Museum to AVAM [American Visionary Art Museum] can teach us so much. The “Culture” exhibit at the BMA [Baltimore Museum of Art] was truly incredible.
What coming exhibits are you most excited to debut?
I’m a lover of history, so I’m very excited about an exhibit opening at the end of August, which is presented by Kaiser Permanente and supported by MedStar, entitled “Blacks in White.” It will tell the history of African Americans in health care in Baltimore and the Chesapeake region. And all of our exhibits have corresponding programming. So guests can anticipate film screenings, panel discussions, and author talks and even performance programs focused on health issues, health care and health careers.
In your opinion, who is the most influential Black historical figure with Baltimore origins?
It’s hard to say, but I’m going with Harriet Tubman. She was a visionary who made Black liberation, at least from slavery, a reality. She was a true abolitionist and Afrofuturist. She is the epitome of an individual taking action, not just to help herself, but to help humanity.
What is the future of the museum industry?
I am optimistic that museums will continue to be safe spaces for learning, safe spaces for debate and places that stimulate thinking and creativity. They are places for young and old to appreciate beauty, to better understand and appreciate difference, and to promote critical thinking. I believe museums can spark the imagination, which in turn can spark greatness. The great challenge to museums, just like other sectors of the nonprofit community, is capital. We cannot operate without funding. If people care about the institution, whether it is $20 or $200,000, our museums need support.
How did COVID-19 affect the museum industry?
COVID-19 was devastating. If you accepted a paid ticket for admission, if you had large gathering spaces or exhibits, it changed the way you did business. Initially it meant closing the physical building and creating virtual opportunities to make sure your audiences didn’t forget about you. Many of those virtual spaces were not income-producing. We lost revenue, and we lost good staff. But we also gained the ability to unlearn some habits and implement new tools like virtual programming, virtual tours, podcasts, et cetera. I think it helped us become more flexible, and I might even go as far as saying nimble.
Are we amid a culture war? And how does that affect how history is taught and disseminated?
Yes, we are definitely in the middle of an attempted culture war. If certain people can “other” people who are different than themselves and wrap it on a narrative of fear, it can have an impact on human interactions. But it’s futile because the numbers are not on the side of tradition. The teaching of history is no longer simply telling “his-story” but telling the multiple stories of diverse people and their truths and contributions to this place we call America.
What is a little-known fact about Reginald F. Lewis?
The only thing I can think of is a little tidbit from his book, “Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun.” He had a gap in his teeth — as do I — and he was very self-conscious about it. For me it is one my favorite personal traits.