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.
I graduated from highschool at 16 and ended up attending the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio to study journalism.
I really loved the school, but It had its problems. It was there that I was called the n-word for the first time. I was walking up Brown Street with a couple of my sorority sisters and a pickup truck drove by and they called us the n-word. I remember feeling like I knew that that was bound to happen at some point, but it was still devastating. I had never had that type of an interaction. My friends who were with me were from Cincinnati, Ohio and Portsmouth, Virginia, so they were maybe a little bit more used to that than I was coming from Chicago and Detroit, which is predominantly black. I just was like, ‘Whoa, I know this should not be happening.’ But they let it roll off their backs more than I did.
When I graduated from college, I wasn’t quite ready to go into the world of work. Most of my training had been in preparing me to become a journalist and work for a newspaper. I realized pretty quickly that the realities of being a journalist was not something I was interested in. The writing was just a little too structured for me, and there was no money in being a freelance writer at the time.
But, I did enjoy writing and reading. I enjoyed storytelling because it was always a way for me to express myself. It still continues to be an outlet for me, but it’s hard for me to write if I’m not in the mood to write. It’s hard for somebody to tell me, ‘Okay, you need to write this and it needs to be written by then.’ I still wanted there to be some writing in my career, so I decided to pursue communications.
In ‘81 I decided to go to grad school at Howard University in Washington D.C. I got my masters in Organizational Communications Management. It was a brand new program, I think I was in the second class to earn that degree. It focused on corporate communications, both small and large group communication, some training and what-have-you. I ended up graduating in ‘83.
I met my husband while I was going to school in Dayton. He was a year behind me in school, but I always make sure everybody knows that he is actually a year older than me. I graduated in ‘81 and he graduated in ‘82. I went to D.C. and he went to L.A. to work in public health. But, he always wanted to go to Howard for graduate school. So he came to Howard in D.C. and we were married in 1986.
After graduating I went on to work for the Freddie Mac Foundation for thirteen years. Then I got a job within the communication department of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. By the time I left in 2014, I had been there for 18 years and had left as the President of the organization.
In 2014 I was approached by the Civil Rights Museum, who offered me a job as the President. I felt it would really give me an opportunity to do something different, but something that was still connected to the community. And knowing that it was at a historic site was even that much better. So, my family and I took the leap and moved here.
My two oldest daughters had already graduated from college, but my youngest daughter was still a sophomore in high school. When they asked me to consider applying I was very hesitant. I had been in Washington DC since 1981, pretty much my entire adult life. I had gotten married there. I had three daughters there. So it was a hard decision, but I made it because I thought that this museum was such an incredible jewel. We enrolled my daughter at St. Mary’s to finish her last two years. My husband is a pastor and has a congregation in Baltimore, so for the past six years he has continued to commute between here and there.
That’s had a huge impact on my personal life. I think I underestimated the actual challenges associated with making a big move like that at that point in my life, in my husband’s life, my daughter’s life. It’s not an ideal situation. But I’ve learned that you have to be continually communicating, because when communication stops all sorts of dysfunction can occur and so I think it’s just really important to make sure that the lines of communication are always open.
I had only been to Memphis two times, and it was when I was a teenager on a group trip kind of thing. I remember having a lot of fun here. I don’t remember what we did, but I know it was fun. But there wasn’t a Nation Civil Right museum then.
I give total credit to the Memphis community who had the foresight to say, ‘We have to preserve this history.’ This community took that terrible tragedy and created something wonderful - something that is world class. A lot of other places would have demolished this building to build something else, but Memphis didn’t let that happen.
The reason for the Civil Rights Museum being here is that this is a historic site. A very tragic event, in a very tragic year, happened right here. The nation’s history occurred on this very ground.
What they did was not create a monument to Dr. King’s death, but a monument to his work and the work of other foot soldiers. People who took very, very disturbing circumstances and demonstrated that with persistence, tenacity, organization and just the idea that they could actually do this, pushed through laws that didn’t just affect Black people but affected all people who were marginalized.
I always tell people this is not a King Museum. It is a museum that talks about King, It’s a museum that talks about his impact on the movement. It does talk about this tragic part of history when he was assassinated, but it really talks about his work and the work that’s yet to be done.
I think in today’s climate it is so obvious, the connections between what happened in what we consider the ‘American Civil Rights Era’ and what’s happening right now. I don’t want to say it’s a new civil rights movement, because it’s not new. It’s really just a continuation.
This museum is meant to help educate people about a part of history that we’re not taught. And while there is certainly some stuff not to be very proud of, like what our nation did to those who were considered ‘others,’ we can be very proud of the work that has been accomplished and the strides that have been made, even against really difficult circumstances.
No one could have truly predicted 2020.The pandemic has put us in a really difficult spot, we kind of can’t do anything. We closed for the three months in the beginning of the pandemic and in those three months George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor were murdered. There was this real desire for us to be opened, and we just couldn’t. But, we used this as a place for people to gather during the protest.
I do think that the relevance is one of the reasons we have had the attendance that we have had since we’ve reopened. We are still down significantly, but we’re not doing too bad. I think people have been visiting the museum to just try to understand what’s going on and why it’s been going on for as long as it has. There are lessons that we can learn from this place. There is an energy here. It’s a very emotional experience going through the museum and it’s different for everybody.
Some people find strength. Some find peace. Some find it to be healing. We have been busy since we reopened, but honestly we were busy when we weren’t open.
The museum has a special role during this time to not be political, but to stand, as I like to call it, on the side of right. And, it’s not right to not treat people as human beings. What we have is some inhumane treatment that has been taking place. We stand firmly against that type of activity and treatment and we stand for any race of people in that situation. It just continues to happen and it’s been happening for as long as this country has been around. The brutality of black bodies has been kind of a standard thing. It wears on people and it’s exhausting.
I have heard that the museum is for people from out of town. That’s not what we want it to be. This museum is for anybody who wants to learn.
As the protests were going on we wanted to make sure that people knew they were welcome here, as long as they understood where they were. This is hallowed ground and there’s a certain way we do things here on the grounds of the National Civil Rights Museum. But, as long as people are representing peaceful protests they are welcomed here.
We would be doing the National Civil Rights Museum a disservice if we didn’t talk about the continuing civil rights challenges. I do think that we will be looking at adding exhibits in the coming years that reflect not just what’s happening right now, but all that has happened since 1968.