Celebrated debate coach and pastor thrived on his connection with students
Everything about him was impeccable. His enunciation. His manners. His warmth. His deep connection to his adoring wife. His abiding interest in student achievement. His presence.
Dr. Thomas F. Freeman was elegance in motion.
The celebrated Texas Southern University debate coach, admired educator, vibrant centenarian and powerful preacher died on Saturday, June 6, 2020. He was 100.
Though he officially retired in 2013, Freeman remained a distinguished professor of forensics emeritus at TSU and the head coach emeritus of the TSU debate team, which he founded in 1949. He was honored to become the namesake of the university’s honors college in 2009. The debate suite of offices and classrooms are named the T.F. Freeman Center for Forensic Excellence.
He led a forensics program and debate team that was internationally traveled and recognized.
Also bi-vocational, Freeman served as pastor of Mt. Horem Baptist Church in Houston’s Fifth Ward for 69 years.
For 70 years, Freeman had been a daily presence — even on weekends — in his office at TSU until the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to remain at home for the last few months.
Freeman crafted a “legacy that will live on forever,” according to a lengthy letter issued to the Tiger Family by TSU Interim President Kenneth Huewitt.
“Whether he was their teacher, their coach or their minister, Dr. Freeman’s impact spans generations — and the globe,” Huewitt wrote. “The university is in mourning. Dr. Freeman is such an important part of our institution’s foundation. He exemplified all that is good about TSU. What stands out to me is the legacy he leaves. He instilled the pursuit of excellence in anyone he encountered. He required you to rise to the occasion to present your best self.”
Already an icon in many circles, Freeman rose to more widespread prominence and a fresh appreciation last year when his three-digit birthday was feted in a large public affair attended by dignitaries and scores of former students.
In a statement shortly after the announcement of Freeman’s death, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner extended prayers and condolences to relatives, former students and the TSU community.
“Last year, I was fortunate to present a proclamation to the incomparable Dr. Thomas F. Freeman on his 100th birthday and name a day in honor of his many accomplishments.
I am deeply saddened by his death,” the statement said in part. “In 2018, I selected Dr. Freeman, as the recipient of the Living Legend Award for the first-ever Mayor’s History Makers Luncheon sponsored by Comcast. As the founding Dean of the Honors College at Texas Southern University, Dr. Freeman indeed was a legendary figure and an inspiration to students for more than seven decades.”
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former Freeman student who also served in the Texas Senate, sent thoughts to his former professor’s wife and family.
“Today our community suffered a tremendous loss. Before I ever met Dr. Thomas Freeman, I, like many others, had heard of his talent and passion. It was an honor to join the list of public figures that were lucky enough to have him as a debate coach at TSU,” Ellis said in a statement posted on Facebook. “Through the years we always remained close and he made sure to call me after he heard me speak to give me his unapologetic notes and critiques. Any ability I have as a public speaker I owe to him and his lessons will always remain in the back of my mind anytime I give a speech. He is and will continue to be an inspiration to myself and so many others. This loss is felt throughout our entire community.”
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also expressed her memories and condolences in a Facebook post.
“A man full of history and a legacy that has no comparison. Dr. Freeman, a scholar, renown tenured professor and generous mentor to persons like myself that were emerging in public service. The Honorable Barbara Jordan, among others, benefited from his masterful coaching. Houston will not be the same without the eloquent oration and passion of Dr. Thomas Freeman,” she said. “I was pleased to give him one of his most recent national awards, the Historic Phoenix Award by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington D.C. My deepest sympathy to his beloved wife and family and to the extended family of those members of the Mount Horem Baptist Church, where he was Pastor for 69 years, and his unique family at Texas Southern University, where he coached for at least 70 years. The bright light he brought to this community and nation will shine eternally. May he Rest In Peace.”
Thomas F. Freeman was born on June 27, 1919, in Richmond, Virginia, to a large family led by Louis Hyme Freeman, a produce wholesaler, and Louise Willis Freeman, a homemaker. After finishing degrees at Virginia Union University and Andover Newton Seminary, he earned a doctorate in homiletics—the art of preaching—at the University of Chicago.
In 1947, he taught a religion class at Morehouse College in Atlanta. A teenage Martin Luther King Jr. was one of his students.
Freeman began his tenure at TSU in 1949 as a professor of philosophy and head debate coach.
His former students there included Barbara Jordan and Otis King, a former TSU law school dean and the City of Houston’s first Black city attorney.
Freeman helped Jordan develop her voice. She became the first Black woman from the South elected to Congress and is remembered as a meticulous inquisitor during the Watergate hearings of the 1970s. Two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington traveled to Houston to consult with Freeman while preparing for his role as a forensics professor in “The Great Debaters” film released in 2007.
Freeman taught, influenced and mentored more than two generations of college students. Over the years, he also served as a lecturer in religious studies at Rice University and as an adjunct professor at Houston Community College.
Educator and former student James H. Ford Jr. captured Freeman’s life in “The Peddler’s Son,” a 2018 biography.
In the book, Dr. Gloria Batiste-Roberts, Freeman’s former student and successor as director and head coach of the TSU debate team, recalled his philosophy on teaching someone to speak and debate well.
“If he breathes, he has potential,” she recalled the professor saying.
Freeman would have turned 101 on June 27.
In addition to his wife of 66 years, Clarice Freeman, he is survived by three children — Thomas Jr., Carter and Carlotta— as well as four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Arrangements are pending.