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Beacon update: Frankie Freeman, civil rights pioneer, called back into action

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: During an interview with the Beacon last summer, noted civil rights lawyer Frankie Freeman said she was ready to wind down, take life easy after more than a half century of civil rights work and public and private appointments. But duty has called once again, and she couldn't say no. She seldom can when the issue involves education and city schools.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris L. Nicastro called Freeman (and Dr. William Danforth) back into service when she reconvened a special advisory committee to help the state decide the future of the beleaguered St. Louis School System. Freeman and Danforth, the former chancellor of Washington University, were the original co-chairs of the committee. Their work led to the creation of a special administrative board to run the system. Read an earlier Beacon story about the most recent meeting of the committee.)

"The most important issue I can think of about the schools is the children," Freeman says. "When we met with (Nicastro) and we talked about it, we said we'd do anything we can do to help. Sometimes, of course, you know you don't need to say that."

She chuckled at her last comment, then stressed that she's ready -- as usual -- to help. She's long been involved with city schools, and served on the ongoing desegregation monitoring committee as part of the voluntary desegregation program.

"Although this appointment wasn't expected, it wasn't a surprise. Certainly it wasn't compared to the (recent) call I got from the governor's office about the Squires," Freeman says.

She was referring to an announcement in early December that she had been named a member of the Academy of Missouri Squires. It's an exclusive group with membership limited to 100 living people, all chosen by current members. According to the governor's press release, a member "must have achieved true greatness in his or her community." (Read an earlier Beacon Backroom item about the Squires.)

Freeman says she was elated to be asked to join.

Then there's the little matter of jury duty. Last summer, she was summoned to appear for a case in St. Louis Circuit Court.

"I showed up. The judge seemed surprised that I had taken the time to come down there. I was excused."

Duty, it seems, never ends for Frankie Freeman.

Read a profile of this remarkable woman below. 

One defining moment in Frankie Freeman's life came on a September day in 1946, when she got a letter that left her with a heavy heart and tough choices. The correspondence was from the dean of the Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.; he said he could not approve Freeman's request to register late for her third year -- in spite of the fact that she was pregnant and expected to give birth shortly after the start of fall classes.

Disappointed but still determined, Freeman appealed to the university's dean of admissions, who turned out to be even less sympathetic. Seeing her condition, he advised Freeman to go home, have her baby and return to Howard the next year.

These well-meaning officials had no way of knowing they were dealing with a student who, years later, would become a Howard trustee, lead a sorority that would donate $1 million to the university, become a noted civil rights attorney, and get called to Washington a few times for presidential appointments.

Nor were they prepared for what Freeman did next.

Rather than leave campus with a bowed head, she thanked the admissions official for his time and advice, then made her way across campus to sign up for fall classes. Alarmed school officials would later tell her they were relieved that she didn't give birth while standing in the registration line, and they immediately worked out a plan to let Freeman start the semester after the baby was born. Four days after classes began on Sept. 10, Freeman gave birth to a son, Butch; about two weeks after that, she was back in the classroom.

"And I graduated in 1947, second in my class," says Freeman.

The incident showed her determination to succeed and her passion for learning, the same passion she tries to ignite these days in young people, particularly those in the St. Louis city school system.

"Education is critical," she says. "It doesn't have to be liberal arts. It can be technical -- an electrician or plumber. That's a good living."

Freeman became involved in city school issues in a big way 10 years ago when she and Washington University's Chancellor emeritus William Danforth co-chaired a task force set up by the federal court to oversee the 1999 settlement of the St. Louis school desegregation case.

In 2006, she and Danforth came together again to co-chair a school committee. This one recommended the state takeover of the city school system in 2007 and the appointment of a three-member panel, the Special Administrative Board (SAB), that now runs the system. The action was as controversial as it was unprecedented, setting off criticism by the elected School Board members, teachers and some community residents. But Freeman and Danforth never appeared to have been singled out for criticism. Instead, the attacks were aimed at politicians who supported the takeover and at the state School Board that voted 5-1 to de-accredit the city school system. That move paved the way for state intervention through the SAB.

Freeman defends these state actions: "We're hoping that the school situation will get better. It's not easy. First of all, you need good management. We've got a new superintendent (Kevin Adams) who has to have time to (do his) work."

Darnetta Clinksdale, a former city School Board member, says Freeman isn't afraid to take the lead on controversial issues.

"I know this wasn't a case where Frankie was just stepping out saying, 'Hey, I want another something to do.' She's willing because she wants to make this community a better place for everyone, especially the underserved. That's why she's a mentor of mine."

Born into a World of Jim Crow

This mentor was born 92 years ago in Danville, Va., the last capital of the Confederacy. Life in the Muse household didn't fit the images of ignorance and poverty assumed to be the norm among blacks in many parts of the South. For one thing, money didn't seem to be a pressing problem -- not even during the Depression -- because Freeman's father, William Muse, had a steady government job. He was only the third black to become a railroad postal clerk in Virginia. The only thing the children didn't share with him, it seems, was his politics. He was a Lincoln Republican all his life, while they all grew up to become Democrats.

Her mother, a 1911 graduate of Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., was mainly a housewife active in many social and educational causes, such as serving as president of the Hampton Alumni Association for 15 years. When it came time for Frankie, the oldest child, to attend Hampton, her parents covered her expenses, just as they would see to it that all six of the Muse children -- four boys and two girls -- would finish college.

For Freeman, then, growing up in Danville was less about Jim Crow than about the security of a two-parent household on quiet Ross Street and finding inspiration from leaders who visited Danville. She had the advantage of knowing, seeing or hearing about many prominent blacks, such as Marian Anderson, who came to her hometown and, in some cases, stayed with her family or with others on her street because hotels were segregated.

But none of this completely insulated her from the rules of Jim Crow. Her parents tried to shield the children from some of its stings, insisting that they walk, for instance, instead of ride Danville's segregated streetcars.

Finally a lawyer

As Freeman became older and lived in northern cities, she realized segregation and discrimination didn't end at the Danville city limits. Her growing awareness of the pervasiveness of these social problems led her to became a lawyer.

"During that period," she says, "I knew I was going to become a lawyer and get involved in civil rights cases."

After leaving Hampton, Freeman lived for a time in New York where she met the man who would become her husband, Shelby Freeman. He was a native of St. Louis attending graduate school at Columbia University. They later married, lived in Washington and had two children by the time Freeman finished law school at Howard.

In 1949, the family moved to St. Louis where Freeman opened her first law office on the second floor of a building at Jefferson and Franklin. The bigotry she'd face as a woman soon became clear when a potential client dropped in to inquire about seeing a lawyer.

"I am a lawyer," she responded.

"I don't want no woman lawyer," he replied then walked away, apparently not realizing that the Frankie in the Frankie Muse Freeman lettering on the office window was a woman not a man.

"You simply deal with it," she says of the sex bias she has encountered in her career. "You don't give up. You keep going. That's why you keep going. It isn't easy, but you get through it."

A crisis at home

In November 1949, Freeman faced a crisis of another kind.

She got a call from the Nursery Foundation saying Butch was "falling a lot." That was the beginning of a particularly hard time for the family because young Butch was eventually diagnosed with post-viral encephalitis syndrome. He received round the clock private care, but he died in May 1958 at age 11.

Freeman said a reliance of faith, prayer and family helped her get through the ordeal. These were the same pillars that helped her rise at 3 a.m. to study for law school, prepare family meals and take care of other household chores.

"There were times I'd tell the Lord, 'Help me get through this day,' " she says.

All this explains why hanging on one wall of her upscale apartment in the Central West End is a stark black-and-white a painting of a black woman sitting quietly before books, late at night perhaps, looking tired but determined. For Freeman, the image seems to capture the roadblocks and the inspiration in her own life.

Freeman says she once saw herself in that picture "because she's struggling and I'm struggling and we (both) get through."

A life in law

Freeman's big break came in 1952 when she was the NAACP's lead attorney in a landmark case, Davis et al. v the St. Louis Housing Authority, that ended legal discrimination in public housing here.

Winning the case was a triumph, but what came next was an even bigger surprise. The Housing Authority offered her a job, paying more than $20,000 a year.

Fourteen years later, she was fired.

That happened partly as a consequence of her appointment to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1970, the panel held a hearing into allegations that McDonnell Douglas had got a $7.7 billion defense contract without developing a affirmative action plan as required by new federal laws. As a result, the Air Force put the contract on hold temporarily.

When that happened, the old Globe-Democrat ran an editorial calling the hearings a "Tea-Pot Tempest." The next day, on Feb. 6, Freeman replied to the editorial, saying the issue shouldn't be dismissed because in the absence of equal opportunity for all people, "we will continue to hurtle toward two separate societies."

The Housing Authority's board dismissed her the same day her response appeared. Though she didn't fight the dismissal, she thought about the sacrifices she had made to defend the downtrodden. Freeman decided to be a little selfish for a change. She dropped by the old Stix department store in downtown St. Louis and bought herself a mink coat.

"I charged it -- to Shelby's card, of course," she says. "I still have that coat."

This wouldn't be the first time Freeman would be fired. She had returned to private practice in St. Louis when President Jimmy Carter asked her to serve as an inspector general in the Community Services Administration. But that appointment lasted only about a year; President Ronald Reagan dismissed all 15 inspectors general almost as soon as he took office.

Private Practice, Public Service

Freeman returned to St. Louis in 1981 and joined the law firm of her close friend Rita Montgomery of Montgomery Hollie & Associates.

Over the years, she also served on a variety of local and national boards. Some of these activities were youth-oriented, inspired by her son's medical condition. She became a charter member of the Herbert Hoover Boys Club, the Urban League's youth development fund and supported scholarship programs at the Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, where she also taught Sunday School for years and was known to fill in for the church organist.

For 16 years, beginning in 1964, she served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. From 1967 to 1971, she was president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, the nation's largest black sorority, which made the $1 million donation to Howard. For 12 years, beginning in 1978, she served on the national board of the Girl Scouts. She also has served on the National Council on Aging as well as the local United Way. In January, she left the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Zoological Park and Museum District.

Although she still drives herself to the law office about twice a week, she quit practicing law in 2008 after about 60 years. She has been scaling back her leadership roles in most civic and community activities, but she shows no sign of giving up the work with Danforth on the city schools.

Taking a Breather

These days, plenty of groups are honoring Freeman.

"I think she's enjoying some of the recognition," says Theresa Loveless, former head of the St. Louis Girl Scout Council. "She's been so busy all of her life, helping others, but now she has the opportunity to have others really do for her."

Both Loveless and retired school teacher Carolyn Thomas regard Freeman as their role model.

"Does she travel a lot now?" Thomas asks. "Oh my god, yes. She also likes the theater, the Symphony and Jazz at the Bistro."

And when time permits, she takes a jazz cruise.

More personal portraits of Freeman come from her sister, Allie Muse Peebles, 82, of Raleigh, N.C., and Freeman's daughter, Shelbe Bullock, 70, of Broomfield, N.J.

"She believes in being on time," says Peebles, a point echoed by most of her St. Louis friends. "She's a wonderful sister, and she always has been my role model."

Then Peebles jokes about Freeman's voice, saying she was excellent at the piano and on the dance floor, but she jokes that "you would never ask her to sing a song. She couldn't carry a tune from the front door to the mailbox."

Her daughter says, "She has always been my cheerleader, has supported me in whatever I wanted to do, and the only thing she expected me to be is good in whatever I did."

As a child, Bullock says, "I was always expected to do things well, to keep busy. My cousin and I used to joke that if you're just sitting around relaxing she (Freeman) would say 'while you're not doing nothing, do this.' "

Bullock admires her mother's grasp of the law, her skills in cooking and at the piano, but she says, giggling, "My mother is mechanically challenged. You don't give her a tool of any kind unless you want her to pass it to someone who can use it."

Aside from her support of civic and nonprofit groups, Freeman also was known for sponsoring Christmas eve events - she'd cook all the food - for international visitors, mostly students, from around the globe. She and her late husband did this, she says, because "when we share our culture and they share theirs, we learn from them and they from us." (Shelby Freeman died in 1991.)

She says it's time to slow down and to take on no new community service projects. "But it's important to keep active. I've been blessed. I've had surgery, things have happened. I think it's important for everybody to keep busy, do things constructive. That's what I try to do: Stay healthy, be of service and make a difference."

Looking back on her life

Freeman says that her participation on the Civil Rights Commission was her most important contribution. Anyone who connects the dots, she says, will see the link between those hearings and the election last fall of Barack Obama as president.

She recalled some of the hearings as she sat on a comfortable sofa in her Central West End apartment -- an upscale apartment but a far cry from the 14-room mansion she and her husband used to call home on private Waterman Place.

On one wall hangs a photo of herself and husband with former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who appointed her to the commission.

The commission hearings in Mississippi, she says, were an eye-opener, a wake-up call for the nation. The black vote was being suppressed, even in counties where blacks were the majority. The moment of truth came, Freeman says, when the commission showed that whites who were responsible for certifying voters couldn't interpret passages of the U.S. Constitution that they required blacks to explain as a condition for voting.

Some of the commission's recommendations from these hearings made their way into the Voting Rights Act, which triggered a quiet political tsunami of black participation in the electoral process. It rolls on still, she says, making it possible for a black candidate to win even the highest office of the land -- as Obama did last fall.

No wonder Freeman decided she had to attend his inauguration.

"I had to be there because of what we (the commission) did 44 years ago," she says. "When I remember all of what people (in Mississippi) had to go through, I had to be there."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.