Terri Lee Freeman

Photos by Houston Cofield


Terri Freeman shares with us her journey on becoming the President of the National Civil Rights Museum and the role the historic site played during 2020.


My mother was a clerical worker who worked in the Communications Department at IBM, when she was hired she was one of the first class of Black women hired to work at IBM. My dad was a commercial artist and worked in advertising.

My parents divorced when I was only two-years old, so I kind of moved around Chicago a lot growing up. My mother’s real passion was dancing. She danced all of her adult life and had a dance school in Chicago on the south side to teach Black children classical ballet.

My world was truly about the arts: theater, photography, dance and everything else. I tell my girls all the time. I didn’t know that people did anything other than go to dance class all day on Saturdays because that was how I spent every Saturday.

My mom really was a phenomenal mother and really exposed me to every potential extracurricular that she could. Even though I was an only child, I had a very close immediate family. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and in fact, my fourth grade teacher was my grandmother. I’m scarred for life because of that. But you know, I was surrounded by love as a child and was encouraged to do whatever it was that I wanted to do.

Before my mother worked for IBM she worked for the Chicago Urban League. When Dr. King came to Chicago in the early ‘60s, my mother was assigned as his secretary while he was there.

She always told me she was scared whenever he would go out of the building because of how segregated Chicago was. I was only seven-years-old when Dr. King was assassinated, so I was really too young to understand what had really happened.

I do remember my mother crying. I had never seen her cry before, so I knew that something really major had occurred. Even though Chicago was an incredibly segregated city, I don’t know that I really knew that it was segregated because I was just used to being around Black folk. And I was fine with that. We had everything that we needed.

My paternal grandfather was also a huge influence in my life. When he was a young man he moved from New York to Wenatchee, Washington with his mother after his parents divorced. His older brother became a pullman porter and was working the railroads. He asked my grandfather to come on the train just to see what it was like, to see if maybe he would want to do that as well. But once they got to Chicago, my grandfather got off the train and never left.

He got married there and had my dad. My grandfather was a great artist, he did these pen and ink drawings that are just wonderful.

He mainly drew sports promotions, so he would do posters for boxing matches or posters for baseball games. The newspapers would actually run these promotions until they realized that they were getting artwork from a black man. Then they stopped accepting his artwork. So he worked at the post office the rest of his life. But, in the late ‘60s he decided he was going to continue his artwork and that he was going to get syndicated in the newspapers.

And that’s exactly what happened. He was syndicated in Black newspapers across the country under the headline ‘Interesting People’ and when he retired from the post office, he put together a couple of books of his artwork called “Interesting Athletes,” “Interesting People,” and “Interesting World Leaders.”

I keep one of his books in my office because he really was, and still is, a huge influence for me. He is truly an example of ‘grace under fire.’ He could have been bitter about the fact that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do simply because of the color of his skin. But, he was strategic.

He was just a clerk in the post office, but on his salary he was able to put me through four years of private college at the University of Dayton. I was the only grandchild and he saved every dollar he could to make sure that his granddaughter would go to college; that I would get an education.

Frankly there was no choice but for me to go to college. It was assumed from the moment I came out of the womb that I would be going on to college. I was the first graduate of a four-year college and the first graduate to get an advanced degree in my family.

Right before my senior year of high school my mom remarried and we moved to Detroit. But we actually lived in a small city called Hamtramck, which is literally surrounded by Detroit. It’s a totally Incorporated city and had a big Chrysler plant that most of the families had some connection to. It was also a largely Polish neighborhood. I remember learning how to pronounce Polish names that don’t have a lot of vowels in them.

It was a very integrated school and I never had any issues. In fact in my experience it was a very welcoming and open school. But, that was my experience and I think it’s important to say that because I’m not sure everybody had the same experience that I did.

I always really admired Mary Tyler Moore. Which in turn led me to want to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, but only behind the scenes. I really was impressed by who Mary Tyler Moore was in her work and so it truly influenced me to pursue that line of work.

There was a lot of communication and media going on around because of my parents’ work, but I never wanted to be in the forefront of any of it, just in the background. I loved writing, so I really thought that it would be cool to work in broadcast journalism.