Reflecting on Roland Freeman’s African American Expressive Culture in Philadelphia Project

Victoria Bankole. Photo by Kyree Echols. Used by permission.

Victoria Bankole. Photo by Kyree Echols. Used by permission.

The following is a guest post by Victoria Bankole, an Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Intern in the Prints & Photographs Division in spring 2020.

Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.”
Octavia E. Butler

Just as author Octavia Butler created herself through writing, photographers such as Roland Freeman use their work to create images of Black self-expression. Within every photo lies the authority to create how Black culture is portrayed. While Black history continues to be shaped daily, authenticity is one element that must always be preserved

I am Victoria Bankole, a recent graduate of Howard University with a B.A. in Strategic, Legal and Management Communication and a minor in Photography, from Harford County, Maryland. For ten weeks in the spring of 2020, I had the privilege of being able to call myself an Intern at the Library of Congress in the Prints & Photographs Division. This position was a part of the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) internship program, which is a partnership between the Library and Howard University.

While working at the Library, I was tasked with assisting the archival processing work for Roland Freeman’s African American Expressive Culture in Philadelphia Project. This project has 737 enlarged contact sheets full of images of African American everyday life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the late 1980s.

My job was to help create a finding aid that would assist researchers who came to the Library with an interest in viewing the project. This included creating a log detailing information about each contact sheet, such as the roll number, date the images were shot, film type, and descriptions of the subject matter of each roll. I also was responsible for creating a scope note that would define why the project was an important part of history.

Roland Freeman contact sheets staged for processing. Photo by Victoria Bankole, 2020.

Roland Freeman contact sheets staged for processing. Photo by Victoria Bankole, 2020.

The Wedding reception for Jackie and Daryl Green. Photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.69204

The Wedding reception for Jackie and Daryl Green. Photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989.//www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633673/

As an AHHA intern, I never took my role lightly. Being a student of Howard University, when entering any new professional space, it is imperative to assess how the work I am doing will impact marginalized communities. Stepping into the Prints & Photographs Division was no different. The images captured by Roland Freeman are an important part of American History because they depict Black people and families in a way that is not performative. Choosing to focus on Black folk life allows for members of the community to be seen in their most natural state. Documentation of Black people being done by Black people is how we remain in control of our own narratives.

8th Anniversary: Voodoo altar to the Loas, and dance for high priestess, Mambo Angela. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Oct. 28. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633674/

8th Anniversary: Voodoo altar to the Loas, and dance for high priestess, Mambo Angela. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Oct. 28. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633674/

 The Wedding reception for Jackie and Daryl Green. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Sept. 23. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633673/

The Wedding reception for Jackie and Daryl Green. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Sept. 23. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633673/

There is so much beauty in Black communities. The way that Roland Freeman captured the culture of Black people in Philadelphia couldn’t send a more powerful message. Black people are allowed to simply be Black. To celebrate, dance, sculpt, quilt, perform, worship. There are so many different facets that encompass anyone’s cultural experience that all deserve to be recognized. This has been a consistent theme in the work of Roland Freeman.

Quilter, Lorraine Mahan. She has quilted the longest Psalm in the bible with 176 verses. It is approx. 150 sq ft. It took 2 years to complete. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Aug. 29. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633671/

Quilter, Lorraine Mahan. She has quilted the longest Psalm in the bible with 176 verses. It is approx. 150 sq ft. It took 2 years to complete. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Aug. 29. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633671/

Wood carver, Isaac Maefeld. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Sept. 14. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633672/

Wood carver, Isaac Maefeld. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman, 1989 Sept. 14. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633672/

Freeman is a world renowned and highly decorated photographer. He received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007. This is the greatest honor one can receive in the folk and traditional arts in the U.S. He began his career photographing the Civil Rights Movement and since has created a wide body of work in photojournalism and photo documentation.

Roland Freeman also has published several books such as Something To Keep You Warm: The Roland Freeman Collection of Black American Quilts from the Mississippi Heartland (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 1979); Stand By Me: African American Expressive Culture in Philadelphia (Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Folklife Programs, 1989); The Arabbers of Baltimore (Tidewater Publishers, Centreville, MD, 1989); and so many more. He has done so much for Black communities not only as a photographer but as an activist. It is people like Roland Freeman that give us the authority to take back our narratives and celebrate Black culture in the ways we see fit.

The Philadelphia Annual African Festival at Penn's Landing. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman. 1989 July 7. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633670/

The Philadelphia Annual African Festival at Penn’s Landing. Detail of photo contact sheet by Roland L. Freeman. 1989 July 7. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2020633670/

Being able to work so closely with the African American Expressive Culture in Philadelphia Project has inspired me to keep the preservation of Black culture at the forefront of my mind both as a student and a photographer. I am forever grateful to the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship program, the Library of Congress, and to Howard University for an unforgettable experience.

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