Rare Book & Manuscript Library

H. Lawrence Freeman papers, 1870-1982, 2015, bulk 1890-1954

Summary Information


The original scores, clippings, correspondence and ephemera in this collection document the lives and careers of Harry Lawrence, Carlotta, and Valdo Freeman, a family of African-American performing artists involved in opera, theatre, and music in early-twentieth-century New York.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#1456
Bib ID 6381639 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Freeman, H. Lawrence (Harry Lawrence), 1869-1954; Freeman, Lottie J.; Freeman, Valdo, 1900-1972; Freeman, Anita Grannum, 1908-1999
Title H. Lawrence Freeman papers, 1870-1982, 2015, bulk 1890-1954
Physical Description 35 linear feet (14 document boxes, 22 flat boxes, 12 oversize boxes)
Language(s) English .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions, with the following exception: an advance appointment must be made to view the framed paintings in Box 48 because they are oversized and require special handling.

This collection is located on-site.

Unique time-based media items have been reformatted and are available onsite via links in the container list. Commercial materials are not routinely digitized.



This collection is arranged in 9 series.



The Harry Lawrence Freeman Collection provides an assortment of material related to American opera and to the artistic performance and social history of African-Americans from about 1890-1950. They include the original manuscript scores to 21 of his operas. These present the fullest picture available of the composer's intentions and artistic process. Freeman's non-musical work is also represented, including drafts of his unpublished book, The Negro in Classical Music and Opera, plays, libretti, and journal articles. The musical scores are accompanied by documentation of the production of his operas, including programs, advertising, correspondence, clippings, schedules and budgets, and production designs. Production documentation also exists for the work of Carlotta Freeman as an actress and stage director with many historic black theatre companies, including the Lafayette Players, the Anita Bush Stock Company, and the Pekin Theatre. Images, from daguerreotypes and paintings to casual snapshots, are included in the Collection. Many prominent African-American performers inscribed headshots or publicity photos to one or more of the Freemans, which are present. There are several large-format paintings and framed photos by the artist Edward Elcha depicting the Freemans, sometimes in costume. The Freemans founded three arts organizations-- the Friends' Amusement Guild, the Negro Grand Opera Company, and the Aframerican Opera Foundation-- and records of each, comprising stock, correspondence, ephemera, and receipts are included in the collection. Valdo and Anita Freeman were also involved with the Negro Actors' Guild, and some documents relating to this organization are also present. Several scrapbooks are included, most from the early twentieth century, with clippings, programs, and other ephemera related to H. Lawrence Freeman's career. Recordings of two interviews with Valdo Freeman talking about his father and playing excerpts from his father's work, are also present in the collection. Lastly, there is a small amount of personal documents and ephemera, including a violin that belonged either to H. Lawrence or Valdo Freeman

  • Series I: Musical Scores, 1893-1950, undated

    The bulk of the H. Lawrence Freeman Papers consists of his musical scores, including many manuscripts in his own handwriting.

  • Series II: Performance Documentation, 1905-1964, undated

    Programs, fliers, posters, scripts, receipts and other documents chronicling the performance activities of the Freemans make up the bulk of this series. Highlights include 12 exquisite watercolor costume designs by Amos Dickenson for The Martyr, circa 1920, and rare programs from such historic African-American theatres as the Pekin, the New Lincoln, the Anita Bush Stock Company, and others. The folder of receipts from 1920-1924 was removed from an accordion file found in the collection. The original order of the receipts has been preserved, although it is not always chronological. Many expenses relate to the formation of the Negro Grand Opera Company, which occurred during this period. Programs kept by the Freemans for events in which they did not perform, but probably attended, are also included.

  • Series III: Images, circa 1870-1969

    This series is an exceptionally rich gathering of early visual material of African-Americans, including paintings, daguerreotypes, and publicity photographs, and snapshots. Many images portray the Freemans or their colleagues in costume or during performance. There is a large group of 'headshot' photos of performers, many of which are inscribed to various members of the Freeman family: highlights include photographs of Anita Bush, Charles Gilpin, Dorothy Mayner, and the Cole-Johnson brothers. Because of the lack of dates on many images, they are primarily organized by size and medium, with categorization by date or subject where possible. For a list of all identified sitters, please see below.

    The following subjects (other than the Freemans) are identified in photographs:

    In headshots and publicity photos: Bonn, Hugo; Brice, Carol; Brown, Ann; Brown, Lillyn; Burrell, Louise Mallory; Bush, Anita; Chenault, Lawrence; Christopher, Lillian; Cole, Bob (with Johnson brothers, see below); Criner, J. Lawrence; Decaldwell, Lavinia Mallory; DeSilva, Cecile; Dixon, Dean; Gardner, Marvin; Gilpin, Charles; Gordon, E. Taylor; Hall, Thomas R; Heyliger, Syrenus; Hines, Earle; Horne, Lena; Hubbard, Ivy; Jarbora, Caterina; Johnson, James Weldon, with J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole; Johnson, Momodu; Johnson and Dean; Jones, Sisseretta ; Knight, Evelyn; Mason, Lydia; Mayner, Dorothy; Mills, Florence; Montgomery, Frank, and Florence McClain; Mores, J. Francis; Olden, Charles; Patterson, Masau; Preer, Evelyn; Price, Loys; Rahn, Muriel (in cast photo of The Martyr 1947); Rocca, Louis; Sissle, Noble; Smith, Rollin R.; Stewart, Harrison; Swarz, Lou; "Uncle Rube"; Verwayan, Percy; Walker, Rachael Lenoir; Walker, Aida Overton; Whipper, Leigh; and Woodby, Marie

    In cardstock photos: Brawley, Edward Macknight; Brown, Andiaels Linsey; Chislom, F.; Gilpin, Charles; Griend, Brice, Prof.; Hayford, Casley; Kirkpatrick, Sidney; Lee, Arthur Bonneau; Lee, Laura; Martin, Reverend Charles; Singer, Fannie Wise; Thomas, Henry; Thomas, Louis; and Wills, Walter, Jr.

    In postcard photos: Foster, Herman; Moss, Ethel; Thomas, Louis; Thomas, W.A.; and "Uncle Walt" (H. Lawrence Freeman's uncle)

    In Oversize Photos: Anita Bush Stock Co, production still; and Negro Choral Society

  • Series IV: Correspondence, 1900-1980, undated

    Contained in this series are letters to and from the Freemans over their entire adult lives. Much material survives from the 1920s and 1930s relating to production of H. Lawrence's operas. Other highlights include several letters from Carlotta to Valdo, 1915-1918, when she was touring with a theatrical company, and a letter from H. Lawrence to Edward Hipsher with a wealth of biographical detail to assist Hipsher with his entry on Freeman in his book, American Opera and its Composers, 1933.

    Correspondents include (* Indicates outgoing correspondence only): Amato, Pasquale*; Bearden, Bessye*; Bingham, Ralph; Bogen, Hyman; Bourne, St. Claire; Brascher, Nahum; Briglia, J.; Burgoyne, Allie; Burleigh, Harry T.*; Butler, Ewan; Caldwell, Ella Mary; Chamberlin, Clarence; Chotzinoff, Samuel*; Colfer, Jessica; Copley, Richard; Cottman, Dorothella; Cushing, Bartley; Davis, Marita; Delacorte, George T., Jr.; DeMille, Cecil B.*; Downs, W. C.; Finsterwald, Maxine; Ford, Harry; Fowler, Thomas; George, Louis W.; Gregory, Oliver H.; Harris, Arthur*; Harris, George; Henry St Settlement Music School (signature illegible); Hersey, Harold; Horsey, Mabel Laws; Hubbert, James*; Hubbard, Ida Forsyne; Hurley, Edward F.; Jeter, Olyve L.; Johnson, Edward; Johnson, William; Jones, Robert Edmond; Keppel, F.P.; Kuhn, Irene*; Lee, Margurite ; Madison, Hattie*; Mannes, David*; Margetson, Edward*; Matthews, Ralph; Mores, J. Francis; Moss, Paul; Murray, James; Nichols, Col. Richard; Office of Mayor LaGuardia (secretary); Perlis, Vivian; Pitcairn, Fred R.; Polacheck, Charles; Provincetown Players, The; Pryor, Arthur Jr.; Rahn, Muriel; Rathbun, Alan; Ratleffe, S.A.; Rhone, Happy; Ricordi Publishing Co (correspondent signature illegible); Roberson, Nora A.; Roberts, Beverly; Robertson, Edythe*; Robinson, Paul; Roy, L. A.; Salmaggi, Alfredo; Schrab, Mirza Ahmad*; Slonimsky, Nicholas *; Still, William; Solomon, Milton; Tannen, Lilyan; Taylor, Pearl; Theobald, Jacob; Vallee, Rudy*; Voorhees, W. P.; Wagner, Oscar; Watson, James; Weber, Henriette; White House, Secretary to the President; and Wilkinson, Robert, M.D.*

  • Series V: Writings of H. Lawrence Freeman, 1921-1940s, undated

    Freeman's non-musical work, including drafts of his unpublished monograph, The Negro in Classical Music and Opera, a newspaper article on "The Musical Outlook," libretti, several plays, and scenarios for his operas make up this series.

  • Series VI: Arts Organizations associated with the Freemans, 1920-1982, undated

    Material relating to several different arts organizations in which the Freeman family participated is gathered in this series. The material is organized in alphabetical order by group name. Materials from the Aframerican Opera Foundation include cards, letterhead, and contracts for this organization, and a roll book of members for an earlier version of this group, the Aframerican Opera Guild, from the early 1940s. The Friends Amusement Guild folder includes tickets, fliers, a membership card, a newsletter from 1933, a list of members, and a poem by Leo Evans about the group. Valdo Freeman served as Administrative Secretary for the Negro Actors' Guild from the mid-1960s until his death in 1972; during the late 1970s Anita continued her husband's work as chairwoman of various committees. Most of the material related to the Negro Actors' Guild is from Anita's work with the group's assistance program for members who fell on hard times. It also includes a few newsletters from the period of Valdo's work with the organization, including one memorializing him shortly after his death, and a certificate of memorial for H. Lawrence Freeman. One clipping from the organization's newspaper in 1939 is present, but partially deteriorated. Documents from the Negro Grand Opera Company include contracts between the three Freemans and the company, books of stock certificates and records of stock sold, and ephemera including promotional materials about the group, an embossing press, letterhead, and a copperplate block for printing the company's logo. (For more financial records of this organization, please see Series III: Performance Documentation, Box 12, Folder 6, "Financial Documents," many of which relate to the Negro Grand Opera Company.)

  • Series VII: Audio and Video, 1971-1972, 2015, undated

    Series consists of two interviews with Valdo Freeman from the early 1970s, along with two lacquer disc copies of what is presumed to be Mr. H. Lawrence Freeman playing and/or Valdo's repeat of his father's performance. The titles for the lacquer discs below were taken from a separate container found in the AV series. There is also audio and video available for the performance of Voodoo at Miller Theatre in 2015.

  • Series VIII: Scrapbooks and Clippings, 1898-1954, undated

    H. Lawrence Freeman or other family members compiled many scrapbooks during his lifetime— six are extant in this series, several of which overlap in dates. The scrapbooks contain clippings, correspondence, programs, and other ephemera related to the Freeman's careers; some are annotated by H. Lawrence Freeman. This series also includes a file of loose clippings. In addition to articles written by H. Lawrence Freeman or related to his career, he had a collection of clippings—articles and pictures—about African-American performing artists. A few complete issues of periodicals are also included here.

  • Series IX: Personal, circa 1898-1972, undated

    This series contains resumes for H. Lawrence Freeman, invitations and programs for non-professional events he attended and for his funeral, personal documents related to other members of the family, and personal ephemera, including a violin that belonged either to H. Lawrence or Valdo Freeman. There is a folder of documentation about the "Military Boy Scouts," a Harlem group to which Valdo Freeman belonged circa 1910-1918, with some photographs. Also included are the program and menu for a dinner in honor of W.E.B. DuBois, 1924, and program of the Fourth Pan-African Congress, 1927.

  • Series X: Additions to the Collection

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection has no restrictions, with the following exception: an advance appointment must be made to view the framed paintings in Box 48 because they are oversized and require special handling.

This collection is located on-site.

Unique time-based media items have been reformatted and are available onsite via links in the container list. Commercial materials are not routinely digitized.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); H. Lawrence Freeman papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.

Related Archival Materials

Valdo Freeman interview on Harry Lawrence Freeman, Oral History, American Music Collection, Yale University: Address--310 Prospect Street New Haven, CT 06511.


Materials may have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Source of acquisition--Freeman Family. Method of acquisition--Purchase; Date of acquisition--December, 2008.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Papers processed Annie Holt, GSAS 2013 7/2008.

Revision Description

2009-02-27 File created.

2009-04-16 xml document instance created by Carrie Hintz

2017-02-23 xml document instance revised by Catherine C. Ricciardi

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

2020-05-23 Links to digitized audio added. kws

2023-02-09 CDs and DVDs for the 2015 Miller Theater performance of Voodoo added to the collection by CCR.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Daguerreotypes (photographs) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Posters Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Programs (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Scores (documents for music) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sound recordings Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Aframerican Opera Foundation Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
African Americans -- Music -- 20th century Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
African Americans in the performing arts Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Anderson, Marion Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Anita Bush Stock Company Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bush, Anita, 1883?-1974 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Elcha, Eduard Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Freeman, H. Lawrence (Harry Lawrence), 1869-1954 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Freeman, Valdo, 1900-1972 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Friends' Amusement Guild Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Guo jia da ju yuan (Beijing, China) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Harlem Renaissance Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hipsher, Edward Ellsworth, 1871-1948 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Jones, Robert Edmond, 1887-1954 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Negro Actors Guild of America Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
New Lafayette Theatre Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Opera -- United States -- 20th century Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Rahn, Muriel Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sissieretta Jones, 1869-1933 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical Note

The African-American opera composer Harry Lawrence Freeman, son of Lemuel Freeman and Agnes Sims-Freeman, was born in 1869 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Freeman family had been free landholders in Cleveland for several decades before the Civil War. Agnes is said to have had a beautiful singing voice, and young Harry showed exceptional musical abilities at an early age. By age 12, he organized a boy's vocal quartet, in which he sang first treble, and worked as a church organist. Self-taught, he began composing at the age of 18, after being inspired by a performance of Wagner's Tannhause r. By 1891, Freeman had organized the Freeman Grand Opera Company in Denver, Colorado. His first operas, Epthalia and The Martyr, were performed by the Freeman Grand Opera Company in Denver's Deutsches Theater in 1891 and 1893 respectively. Freeman wrote the libretti as well as composing the music for these two pieces, as he did for all of his operas except for Uzziah.

In 1893 Freeman returned to Cleveland, where The Martyr had its second production at the German Theatre in 1894. Around 1893 Freeman began studying theory and composition formally with Johann Beck, then the conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Beck identified Freeman's promise as a composer immediately, saying, "Freeman has some of the important qualities of character that made Wagner great. His compositions are wonderfully big in conception, the music faithfully portraying the sentiment of the words." Perhaps because of this comment, Freeman was dubbed "the colored Wagner" in the press, a sobriquet that stayed with him all his life. Freeman's music shows Wagner's influence in his use of leitmotifs and orchestration; also, Freeman planned to write a cycle of four music-dramas based on African myths, probably inspired by Richard Wagner's 'Ring Cycle' of four operas based on Norse mythology.

From about 1894-1904, H. Lawrence Freeman wrote and published a number of popular songs as "Harry Freeman," earning him a reputation as a 'hit' composer in certain circles (in his later works the composer was identified exclusively as "H. Lawrence Freeman"). From 1895-1899, Freeman toured with Ernest Hogan's Rufus Rastus company, writing some of the music for Hogan's blackface musical comedies. In 1899, Freeman married actress and singer Charlotte ("Carlotta") Louise Thomas, the daughter of a prominent black family from Charleston, South Carolina. In January of 1900, their son Valdo Lawrence Freeman was born. Also in 1900, Johann Beck conducted the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in excerpts from three operas by Freeman, a prestigious symphonic debut for a young American composer, which generated much attention in the press. H. Lawrence Freeman then became the director of the music program at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, from 1902-1904, where he directed a student production of his opera African Kraal in 1903. From 1906-1907, both H. Lawrence and Carlotta Freeman worked at the newly-formed Pekin Theatre in Chicago, the first theatre of its kind to be entirely run by and performed in by African-Americans.

Around 1908, the Freeman family moved to New York City. They founded the Friends' Amusement Guild in their Harlem brownstone, which grew from a gathering of a few neighbors every Sunday afternoon for music or readings to an organization of several hundred members that produced theatre, opera, charity concerts, and a host of other activities. Carlotta continued working as an actress and later as a stage director, with the Anita Bush Stock Company, the Lafayette Players, and other groups. According to interviews with Valdo Freeman, she also performed occasionally with 'legitimate' (i.e. Caucasian) theatre companies by passing as Latin American or of Mediterranean descent-as such, she was one of the first black actresses to work in white theatres. H. Lawrence Freeman continued to work in musical comedy in New York, while also pursuing his operatic composing, becoming interested in a fusion of the two which he called "Jazz Opera." He served as musical director for the Cole-Johnson Brothers Company from 1909-1910, which produced popular "Tin Pan Alley" musicals, and afterwards was musical director of the John Larkins Musical Comedy Company for a few years. He also founded and conducted the Negro Choral Society, a chorus of about 75 voices, starting in 1912. In 1920 the Freemans founded the Negro Grand Opera Company, a group designed to mount H. Lawrence's operas and provide performance opportunities for African-American singers. The same year, H. Lawrence Freeman founded his own music school in Harlem, the Salem School of Music, which was renamed a few years later the Freeman School of Music. From about 1920 onwards, Valdo Freeman acted as his father's business manager, seeking out opportunities for production and publication of the operas--he was the manager of the Negro Grand Opera Company and also became executive director of the Friends Amusement Guild. All three Freemans became thickly embedded in the cultural life of the Harlem Renaissance, with their brownstone serving as an impromptu salon for figures such as Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Marion Anderson, Muriel Rahn, and Lena Horne in later years.

By the late 1920s, H. Lawrence's work was becoming well-known in New York, through his performances, teaching, and his work as a musical critic and essayist for the New Amsterdam News and the Afro-American newspapers. In 1928 his opera Voodoo was produced at the 52nd Street Theater, and a concert performance of the same opera was broadcast live over the radio station WGBS. Freeman received the Harmon Award for significant achievement by an African-American in the field of arts and letters in 1930; the other 11 recipients included Adam Clayton Powell. Later the same year he played excerpts from several of his operas at Carnegie Hall. In 1934 he was the composer and musical director of the pageant "O Sing a New Song," a high-profile event at the Chicago World's Fair which celebrated the African-American experience.

The late-1930s saw a few productions and many failed attempts at production of Freeman's operas, most significantly a production of Vendetta at the Park Palace in 1937. Valdo was especially interested in seeing his father's work produced at 'mainstream' rather than historically black venues, and during this period he contacted the Metropolitan opera, a few of the Broadway theatres, and several major concert halls. The Freemans' work was largely suspended during World War II, but Valdo's efforts were rewarded in 1947 by a production of The Martyr at Carnegie Hall. H. Lawrence conducted an interracial cast that included Muriel Rahn and Louis Rocca. The production received reviews from both mainstream and African-American newspapers; while most critics agreed that it was a historic moment, many noted that the work was unfinished (not completely orchestrated) and needed polishing. Some objected to Freeman's mixture of jazz and African song forms with more traditional elements of Western classical music such as the dacapo aria. This and many other performances of Freeman's operas were criticized for having inadequate orchestras; Valdo Freeman later said that hiring and rehearsing the instrumentalists was one of the most difficult parts of his father's productions, given the need for the musicians to be comfortable with both Western classical and jazz styles.

In the late 1940s, H. Lawrence Freeman began developing the Aframerican Opera Foundation, a group that would promote black composers and singers, and also offer opera in a smaller, more accessible format to a wider audience. Among other luminaries, he asked Eleanor Roosevelt to sit on the board of directors. He also sought publication of his monograph, The Negro in Classical Music and Opera, in the early 1950s, but the manuscript was criticized for lack of scholarly methods and significant revisions were recommended. Both projects were cut short by H. Lawrence Freeman's death on March 24, 1954; Carlotta died only three months later, on June 11, 1954.

Valdo married Anita Grannum (1908-1999) in 1954, after the death of his parents. The Grannums were long-time friends of the Freeman famil-- Hugh P. Grannum, Anita's father, was a publisher who knew H. Lawrence and Valdo professionally, and Anita's sisters Alberta and Kathlyn Grannum had sung in the 1947 production of The Martyr. After their marriage, Valdo and Anita became involved with the Negro Actors' Guild; Valdo served as administrative secretary from 1965 until his death in 1972, and Anita continued to work there as chairwoman of the board until about 1980. Anita was a graduate of the law school at St. John's University, and it was with her legal expertise that Valdo began the process of conserving his father's estate. After Anita's death in 1999, H. Lawrence Freeman's scores and other papers were passed to her sister Kathlyn, and then to her niece Holly Zuber-Banks.