Dr. Thomas Freeman remembers that moment more than four decades ago in Atlanta when he pointed out Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to his Texas Southern University, or TSU, debate team students:
Flanked by bodyguards, as he often was during the civil rights movement, King was dining at the same restaurant as Freeman and his wide-eyed young charges. But when King caught sight of Freeman, he surprised the Houston contingent by coming to the table, offering Freeman a handshake and showering praise on a religion course he had taught in 1947 as a Morehouse College visiting professor.
“If not for that encounter, I might never have realized Martin was in my class in 1947,” Freeman says with a chuckle. “Imagine how taken aback I was.”
A TSU professor of philosophy since 1949 and an educator for 66 years, Freeman has taught and influenced generation after generation of college students. Thousands have taken his classes and participated on debate teams. Most have not become as world-famous as King, but untold numbers have risen to the top of fields such as law, education, government and politics.
Freeman is best-known for coaching TSU’s highly acclaimed debate team, which has won hundreds of awards, traveled the globe and during the period when Freeman and King became re-acquainted, helped desegregate college forensics.
For Freeman, educating young people is as much a calling as one that led him into the ministry. He also has been a church pastor in Houston for 60 years.
Ironically, he never meant to stay more than nine months — much less pass his 91st birthday this year — at TSU or to become any sort of forensics guru.
A college graduate by age 18 and a Virginia Union University professor by his 20s, Freeman was among the Black intellectuals hired in 1949 to teach at what was then Texas State University for Negroes. That year, he staged a debate in his logic class drawing from his own undergraduate experiences. It was such a hit, four students begged him to coach a team. Freeman took them to two out-of-town tournaments, which they won.
“Houston has been my home ever since. I realized my work in Virginia was complete, and this is what God wanted me to do,” he says.
Freeman believes strong debate skills translate into broad life skills, one reason he pushes students hard, occasionally resulting in them shedding a tear or two as they strive to please him.
“Self-confidence and mastering the art of persuasion pay off in making good impressions when they seek jobs. Our students aren’t speech specialists, but they must learn to be socially and intellectually acceptable wherever they go,” Freeman says.
In 2009, the Thomas F. Freeman Honors College was established at TSU, and Dr. John Rudley, TSU president, considers the naming decision “appropriate because of (Freeman’s) unwavering passion for high standards. He is an exemplary member of the faculty.”
Freeman insists the recognition “doesn’t flatter but instead humbles me.” As another example of his unflappable demeanor, he wasn’t fazed when Hollywood called. Academy Award-winning actor Denzel Washington sought Freeman as a consultant for the 2007 movie, The Great Debaters, based upon the triumphs of a Depression-era Wiley College debate team and its coach. Freeman couldn’t be pried away from his students despite the offer of a free trip to Los Angeles, so Washington and other cast members went to TSU to be trained in the art of debate by Freeman and his students.
One of the many former TSU students whom Freeman speaks of fondly is the late U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan, who honed her oratory skills as a debater in the 1950s. Among other things, Jordan was famous for her eloquence during the 1974 impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon and for her keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.
While reflecting on the past, Freeman still pushes forward. He’s teaching two philosophy classes this semester and as always, he’s coaching young debaters, critiquing their diction, speaking up if he disapproves of how they are carrying themselves. He hasn’t retired because of the satisfaction gained from watching students mature academically and personally.
He adds: “The totality of the interaction is my reward.”