Deutsch, James I. 2017. "Crossing Borders on the U.S. National Mall: The African Diaspora Programs at the Festival of American Folklife." In Mapping the History of Folklore Studies: Centres, Borderlands and Shared Spaces. Bula, Dace and Laime, Sandis, editors. 60–67. Cambridge (U.K.): Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Pearl Bowser is a filmmaker, producer, author, lecturer, and highly acclaimed scholar of African American film who is recognized as an authority on the works of Oscar Micheaux, a noted writer, director, and producer of race films from 1919 to 1948.
Born Pearl Johnson on June 25, 1931, in Sugar Hill, Harlem, New York, she was named after her mother (also Pearl Johnson), a domestic worker who had been raised in a Catholic nunnery. On occasional Saturdays, the younger Pearl would accompany her mother to work in apartments in lower Manhattan, where she would assist her by folding handkerchiefs for a small allowance. After moving to a lower part of Harlem when she was about four years old, she met Harlem entrepreneur "Bumpy" Johnson, for whom she and other children in the neighborhood did odd jobs such as counting coins or attending to his ice-cream stand. Johnson, who would sometimes give the children joy rides in his Cadillac, occasionally allowed Pearl and the other children to borrow books from his extensive library, provided that they read them and submitted to a quiz.
As a child, Bowser had several racist encounters. For example, one of her white kindergarten teachers at her elementary school wore gloves in the classroom as to not touch Black pupils. She was also occasionally teased for having a gap between her teeth but felt insulated from sustained bullying because she had several older brothers who sometimes protected her. On a separate occasion, when she was about nine years old, her mother sent her on a trip from New York to the South to visit relatives. Although her mother had purchased tickets for her to be in a Pullman car, when she changed trains in Washington, DC., she was forced to ride in the car behind the engine, which left her covered in soot.
An avid reader, Pearl excelled in elementary and high school and received a scholarship to attend Brooklyn College, where she majored in biology. She supplemented her income by recording the numbers in one of Bumpy Johnson's shops. Disappointed with the quality of the education she was receiving, Bowser withdrew from Brooklyn College, eventually landing a job at CBS where she worked on a team that analyzed Nielsen ratings.
In 1955, Pearl married fellow New Yorker LeRoy Bowser. By the mid-1960s, although Pearl and LeRoy Bowser had separate interests, they both were working simultaneously in the civil rights movement. While LeRoy was active in Brooklyn CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and went to the South in the summer to teach for what was the beginning of HeadStart, Pearl, along with other production activists, took to the streets documenting African American culture and issues—working to bring these films to schools. Additionally, Bowser wanted to write a cookbook to earn funds for Brooklyn's CORE organization. She was approached by David Davis, the editor of Tuesday Magazine. Tuesday had distribution in the Herald Tribune across the country as a Sunday supplement. As the urban-world magazine exploded in Black communities, "Joan" Bowser's two-page pictorials on Southern cooking with a set of recipes became very popular in the five years she wrote them. Bowser retained copyrights to the articles, and easily completed her cookbook a short time later.
Bowser's colleague at ABC, Charles Hobson, found a used book written by Peter Noble about Black films and Oscar Micheaux. The volume was slim and contained what little information contained in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) files. Hobson and his colleagues wanted to write a book about the topic, and they assigned Bowser to begin the research. As part of the project, Bowser went to California to interview actors who may have been in early Black films or may have worked with Micheaux. What she learned began her intensive scholarship into Micheaux and his fellow filmmakers.
In 1971, she organized her first film festival, the Black Film History Series. In 1979, she organized the nation's first American women's film festival in New York City. She also presented a major retrospective, Independent Black American Cinema 1920-1980, which toured the country during 1981 and 1982. She also directed the Journey Across Three Continents film and lecture series, which toured the country from 1983-1985. Bowser also served as president of the prestigious Flaherty Film Seminar in 1987. In 1989, she, alongside Grant Munro, programmed the 35th Flaherty Film Seminar, which featured films such as Finzan, Zajota and the Boogie Spirit, Daughters of the Dust, and many more. She has also been a judge at the world-renown Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESCPACO) in Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta).
In the 1980s Bowser was awarded an independent artists grant by the Ford Foundation to travel west and collect oral histories from individuals in Oscar Micheaux's orbit, loosely following the route he would have travelled decades earlier. Stopping in cities such as Roanoke, Virginia; Memphis, Tennessee; and Jackson, Mississippi, she collected dozens of oral histories from actors, actresses etc. that knew Oscar Micheaux. Through this research she became an eminent figure in the Black independent film industry. Working as a programmer, she travelled around the United States and the world showing films by domestic and Black filmmakers within the Diaspora.
Despite her wealth of experience working as a programmer, it wasn't until the 1990s that Bowser made her directorial debut with the documentary film Midnight Ramble. Funded by American Experience, the film looks at African Americans and Hollywood movies from 1910 through the 1950s. In 2000, she, along with Louise Spence, co-authored Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences, a book about the pioneering filmmaker. Additionally, she is founder and director of Chamba Educational Film Services, a film distribution company that specialized in distributing films by African American filmmakers. In the early 1980s, she renamed her company/collection as African Diaspora Images, a collection of historical and contemporary films documenting Black film history. She subsequently joined Third World Newsreel, where she was director of their theater department.
In 2012, Pearl Bowser donated her extensive collection of books, sound cassettes, films, film memorabilia, and papers to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
1940 United States Federal Census; New York, New York, New York, population schedule, p. 61B, house number 1486, family 195, Pearl Bowser; Ancestry.com. 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012 accessed: 10 Sept 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm: m-t0627-02665
Bowser, Pearl. Pearl Bowser Oral History. Interview by Tuliza Fleming and Jennifer Lyon, July 21, 2011.
Acquired as a donation from Pearl Bowser in 2012.
Collection is open for research. Access to collection materials requires an appointment.
United States of America -- North Carolina -- Durham County -- Durham
United States of America -- Massachusetts -- Suffolk County -- Boston
United States of America -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia County -- Philadelphia
United States of America -- New York -- New York
Scope and Contents:
The Philip G. Freelon Architectural Archival Collection documents the life and career of architect, educator, cultural heritage preservation advocate and artist Philip G. Freelon. The collection highlights his distinguished career from its inception to his role as the "architect of record" for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Freelon was one of the leading African American architects of his generation and he created a focus designing and constructing buildings that paid reverence to African Americans and other underrepresented communities. This collection is comprised of business records, photographic materials, ephemera, correspondence, architectural drawings, and clippings.
The materials in this collection have been separated into seven series. The materials have been ordered and organized based on the content and chronology. Within each series and sub-series, the folders are organized as close to the collection's original order as when it was acquired.
Biographical / Historical:
Philip Goodwin Freelon was born March 26, 1953, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Allan Freelon, Jr. and Elizabeth Neal Freelon. Freelon was greatly influenced by his grandfather, Allan Freelon Sr., a notable Harlem Renaissance visual artist, educator, and civil rights activist. His grandfather's values and artistry inspired him to create a career that focused on creating historical and cultural spaces in African American communities. Freelon attended high school at the former predominantly white elite all-boys school, Central High School located in upper North Philadelphia from 1967 to 1971. His attendance at this school during of the Civil Rights Movement afforded him the unique experience that inspired him to attend a historically Black college (HBCU). Freelon selected Hampton Institute (Hampton University) to develop his veneration of the composition and design of the buildings that held cultural and artistic treasures. Located in the Tidewater area of Virginia, Hampton was renowned among HBCUs for its architecture program. His professor and mentor at Hampton, John Spencer, pushed Freelon academically as he moved easily through the school's curriculum. After two years at Hampton, Spencer helped Freelon transition to a more challenging program at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Freelon graduated in 1975 with a bachelor's in environmental design in architecture.
Later in the fall of 1975, Freelon enrolled at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue a master's in architecture. During the summers, Freelon worked with one of former his NC State professors at the architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates. After graduating from MIT in 1977, Freelon returned to North Carolina to take his Architecture Registration Examination (ARE), becoming the firm's youngest person to receive licensure. He also began teaching classes at his alma mater, NC State. It was there that Freelon met his future wife, Nnenna Pierce. Pierce, a Massachusetts native was attending Simmons College in Boston at the time. The connection was immediate, and the pair was married in 1979 and welcomed their first son, Deen in 1980. After a brief employment for a large Texas firm 3/D International, Freelon returned to Durham to join O'Brien Atkins Associates. He was the firm's youngest partner, eventually serving as principal and vice president of architecture. Freelon worked on a wide variety of projects throughout the state including learning centers, university buildings, churches, and parking garages. Along with Freelon's budding career, his family was expanding as well. Phil and Nnenna welcomed their daughter Maya in 1982 and their son, Pierce in 1983. During this time, Freelon was being highly recognized for his work. The American of Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded him the Honor Award for his design of Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which has since been rebuilt.
By the end of the decade, Freelon and his wife Nnenna needed a change of pace. Nnenna pursued a professional career in music while Phil took a break from his career to expand his skillset and reinforce his intellectual approach to design. In 1989, Freelon was granted the Loeb Fellowship for one year of independent study at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He also pursued a longtime hobby of furniture design, calling the practice "small architecture". He received industry awards like first prize in the PPG Industries, Inc. Furniture Design Competition as well as AIA Honor Award for conference table designs. With a year away from the field to clarify his vision, Freelon opened his own firm, simply titled, the Freelon Group in 1990. Beginning as a one-man operation, the Freelon Group grew to become one of the largest African American owned architectural firms in the country with over 50 employees, forty percent of which were women, and thirty percent were people of color. With freedom within his own firm, Freelon focused on designing learning centers, libraries and museums and vowed to never build anything that did not bring cultural and intellectual value to a community.
Over the next twenty years, Freelon would assert himself as a force in designing notable cultural institutions and community-driven projects in and around the country including the Sonja Haynes Stone Center at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC), Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (Baltimore, MD), Museum of African Diaspora (San Francisco, CA), Harvey B. Gantt for African American Arts and Culture (Charlotte, NC), the Anacostia and Tenley-Friendship branches of the District of Columbia Public Library , National Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights (Atlanta, GA), Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (Jackson, MS) and Emancipation Park (Houston, TX).
Alongside his architectural career, Freelon served as a lecturer and adjunct professor at several colleges and universities including North Carolina State University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Maryland College Park, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the Florence, Italy program at Kent State University. Freelon was awarded a full-time appointment as professor of Professional Practice at MIT in 2008. The Professional Practice (4.222) course was a requirement for the master's in architecture and he used examples from his extensive career and personal experience to illustrate legal, ethical, and management concepts. Nnenna's music career was also thriving. She would go on to record twelve albums and be nominated for six Grammys. This fusion of education, the arts, and music inspired another generation of Freelons: their son, Pierce Freelon is a hip-hop artist, educator, and political activist; daughter Maya Freelon is a visual artist; and son Deen Freelon is a professor.
In 2001, George W. Bush established a commission to create a new museum on the National Mall. Freelon wanted to enter his firm to participate in the international design competition. Freelon would partner with famed African American New York City architect, J. Max Bond, Jr. and by 2006 the two officially formed the Freelon Bond Architects.The Freelon Bond group submitted their proposal and soon after were elected to create programming and pre-design work for the museum. When the official design competition for the museum was announced in 2008, UK-based architect David Adjaye joined the team as the lead designer, and along with the partnering firm SmithGroup, the new architectural team became Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. The three black architects combined a variety of distinctive elements from Africa and the Americas to create the building's unique, historically significant design. The Freelon Group served as the "architect of record" and were responsible for ensuring that key design ideas were upheld. Freelon and key firm members such as Zena Howard were active as on-site project managers during the museum's construction process to certify that the building would be developed according to plan.
Freelon, Adjaye, and Bond were tasked with taking the collective history of the African American experience-- generations of pain, triumph, and perseverance-- and forming it into a structure. The team looked to African sources, such as Yoruban architecture, for inspiration. They sought to connect the building's design to the geographic and cultural roots of African Americans. Their design choices also reference the contributions of enslaved and free black metalworkers made to the landscape of the American South. Their goal was to make the museum an extension of its contents, and an expression of the stories told inside.
By the groundbreaking for NMAAHC in 2012, Freelon had been appointed to the U.S. Commission of the Fine Arts by President Barack Obama. In an effort to broaden his resources and expand his firm, The Freelon Group merged with Perkins & Will, a firm originating in Chicago that grew to have offices across the United States. Freelon was appointed the managing director and later lead design director at the firm's North Carolina offices in Charlotte and Durham in 2014. By the next year, Freelon understood that his work in architecture and education was a necessary voice to preserve, which he did through donation of the bulk of his personal papers to his alma mater, NC State University. The year 2016 proved to be a year of triumph for Freelon as NMAAHC opened its doors on September 24th to much jubilation and celebration. That same year, Freelon's legacy was further cemented as the Phil Freelon Fellowship Fund was established at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, a fellowship designed to broaden opportunities for African Americans and other underrepresented communities in architecture and design.
Unfortunately, this triumphant year was met with difficulty as Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive disease that affects the nervous system. He would continue to work and lecture for the next two years until it became too challenging. One of those projects was the renovation and opening of The NorthStar Church of the Arts in early 2019. A passion project with his wife and son, Pierce, a former church was renovated and repurposed as an arts and cultural space for all. This space was created in an effort to support the Durham cultural community as it began to feel the effects of gentrification. When Freelon lost his battle with ALS on July 9, 2019, in his home in Durham, North Carolina, the family requested that in lieu of flowers that donations be sent to the NorthStar Church to continue the center's mission and Phil's dream to give back to the Durham community.
1953 -- Philip Goodwin Freelon was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Allan Freelon Jr. and Elizabeth Neal Freelon.
1971 -- Freelon graduated from Central High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and entered School of Architecture, Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia as a design student.
1973 -- Freelon transferred to College of Design at the North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
1975 -- Graduated with a Bachelor's in Environmental Design in Architecture from NC State University. He received the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Book Award for Outstanding Work in Architectural Design. In the fall, he began his master's program in architecture at MIT.
1976 -- Began working as aide for architectural firm, John D. Latimer and Associates.
1977 -- Graduated with a Master's in Architecture and Design from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT.)
1978 -- Freelon became youngest architect to pass the North Carolina Architecture Registration Exam. Freelon started teaching at North Carolina State University.
1979 -- Married Chinyere "Nnenna" Pierce. Freelon began working for, 3/D International in Houston, Texas.
1980 -- Son Deen Freelon was born.
1981 -- Freelon returned to Durham, NC to join O'Brien Atkins Associates as the firm's youngest partner.
1982 -- Daughter Maya Freelon was born.
1983 -- Son Pierce Freelon was born.
1989-1990 -- Received Loeb Fellowship for independent study at Harvard University. Freelon received AIA Honor Award for American Airlines Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham Airport, NC (RDU).
1990 -- Freelon left O'Brien Atkins Associates to open his own firm The Freelon Group.
1991 -- Won first prize in the PPG Furniture Design Competition.
1992 -- Won the AIA Honor Award for Conference Table Designs.
2001 -- Won the AIA Firm Award for The Freelon Group and the AIA Design Award for Parking Structure, RDU Airport. Began attending meetings of President George W. Bush's commission on new National Mall museum dedicated to African American history and culture.
2003 -- Freelon merged his firm with New York architect Max Bond to create Freelon Bond Architects.
2004 -- Sonja Haynes Stone Center at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (Chapel Hill, NC) was completed.
2005 -- Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture (Baltimore, MD) and Museum of African Diaspora (San Francisco, CA) were both completed.
2008 -- UK-based architect David Adjaye and Washington, DC based architecture firm, Smithgroup joined the team, creating the Freelon Adjaye Bond Group/SmithGroup Freelon began teaching at MIT's school of Architecture and Design.
2009 -- Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smithgroup won the official design for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Harvey B. Gantt for African American Arts and Culture (Charlotte, NC) was completed.
2010 -- Anacostia branch of the District of Columbia Public Library (Washington, DC) was completed.
2011 -- Tenley-Friendship branch of the District of Columbia Public Library (Washington, DC) was completed.
2012 -- Construction began on NMAAHC.
2014 -- The Freelon Group merged with Perkins & Will, a much larger architectural firm. Freelon became managing director and lead design director of the North Carolina branches in Durham and Charlotte. National Center for Civil Rights and Human Rights (Atlanta, GA) was completed.
2016 -- Freelon was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
2017 -- Mississippi Civil Rights Museum (Jackson, MS) and Emancipation Park (Houston, TX) were completed.
2019 -- Freelon died in his home in Durham, North Carolina at age 66 on July 9.
Phil Freelon Papers, 1975-2019 at North Carolina State University Libraries.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Philip G. Freelon.
Collection is open for research. Access to collection materials requires an appointment.
The NMAAHC Archives can provide reproductions of some materials for research and educational use. Copyright and right to publicity restrictions apply and limit reproduction for other purposes.