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Ex-students celebrate legendary Decatur teacher’s 90th birthday

If you were a student in Etta Freeman’s classroom, you have
a story to tell about her.

And if you are not one of her former students, you have
probably heard your parents or one of your friends talk about her.

Freeman, arguably the most recognizable retired educator in Decatur,
turned 90 on Friday.

More than 300 of her former students came to A.C. Banks Park
on Saturday to celebrate the occasion with her. Even her 1937 prom date came to
see her.

The joyous smile she brought to classrooms for 57 years as a
teacher and substitute teacher is as plentiful as it always has been.

And the modest woman, who once had 67 students in a
classroom, is as modest as she ever was.

“There’s really nothing about me people want to read
about,” she says, matter-of-factly.

There is no shortage of people to disagree with her.

“You could write a book about her life,” said
Carol Watkins, a student in Freeman’s classroom at Cherry Street Elementary in

“That’s Mrs. Freeman,” Calvin Powers said about
her modesty.

Powers was one of her first-grade students in 1961.

“We were crazy about her then, and we are today,”
said Audrey Priest of Moulton.

Responding to her former students, Freeman said: “You
can’t believe what those kids say. I taught them.”

Born the eldest of two children, Freeman and her brother,
Sam Bankston, were reared by her grandparents, Sam and Emma Gray of Decatur.

She graduated from Decatur Negro High School in 1937, and
was inspired by Principal C.J. Hurston to attend Alabama State University in

“He kept telling me I had to do something,” she

To help Freeman pay for college, Hurston lied about her
brother’s age so he could enter one of the local Civilian Conservation Corps

“His admittance to the camp and his selfless dedication
to me enabled him to send me $25 per month to ensure that I had the funds
necessary to attend college,” she said.

After two years at Alabama State, she was qualified to teach
and landed a job at segregated Moulton Rosenwald School. She had more than 60
students in the same class for two consecutive years.

“I didn’t have any problems,” she recalled, noting
that she had a switch to take care of any discipline problems.

She boarded with Sallie Goins in Moulton and returned to her
Decatur home on weekends. Her teaching pay was $50 per month. She paid Goins $4
per week.

“She did the cooking and everything,” Freeman said
about Goins.

A child of the segregated South, Freeman experienced racism
that would have broken the spirit of most people.

When she was six months pregnant and traveling home from
Moulton, for example, a white bus driver requested that she give up her seat in
the back to a white passenger.

“I told him I was tired, pregnant and wasn’t moving
anywhere,” she said.

The white man stood. This happened more than 10 years before
Rosa Parks’ stance triggered the Montgomery bus boycott.

Several years later while she was registering to vote, a
white registrar tried to make her move to the back, saying he registered white
voters first.

Ruth Draper, another black woman with Freeman, moved to the
back of the line.

“I told him I was next in line,” she said.

Freeman refused repeated requests to move aside.

“I registered,” she said, proudly.

She married the late Charles Henry Freeman in 1941, and in
1943 gave birth to her only child, Charles Richard Freeman.

Because her son was only 6 months old, Freeman almost didn’t
get the job at Cherry Street Elementary in Decatur.

“In them days, your baby had to be 1 year old because
they worried about you (breast-) feeding the child,” she explained.

With the support of Cherry Street Elementary Principal
Clarence Reeves, the superintendent went against school policy and hired
Freeman as a first-grade teacher.

In the 1950s, she enrolled at Alabama A&M and finished her
bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Until her retirement in 1976, Freeman taught elementary
students, sometimes three generations in one family.

Earlene French Gray was a Freeman student in the 1940s.

“She took care of kids,” Gray said. “She’d
wash their faces, comb hair and sewed clothes for some. She was a teacher and

Two of Gray’s daughters were in Freeman’s classroom in the

“My sister used to call her Aunt Etta,” Michelle
Gray King said. “The other students started calling her that, so my sister
had to start saying Mrs. Freeman.”

District 8 state Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, met Freeman
when he moved to Decatur in 1957.

“I can’t think of another person that has done so much
for the community and got so little attention for her contributions,”
Dukes said. “This community needs more like her.”

George Washington was Freeman’s prom date in 1937 at Decatur
Negro High. He brought her a dozen red roses on Saturday.

He doesn’t remember how he ended up as her date.

“All I know is that she was the prettiest woman in Decatur,”
Washington said.

With her usual sense of humor, she turned to him, smiled and
said, “I’m still pretty.”

No one disagreed.

Retirement hasn’t meant sitting on the couch or retreating
to some vacation resort.

She was a substitute teacher 20 years and worked four years
as a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Today, she spends her time as a volunteer at Turner-Surles
Community Center and jokes about
her vehicle being the community car.

“I take a lot of people to doctor’s appointments, and I
never charge them anything,” she said, proudly.

Information from: The Decatur Daily,

– Associated Press

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