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Interview by Mariah Campbell/
Photograph by Michael Starghill
From 1942 to 1945, Clarice Freeman was the only Black student at Eastern Illinois University (formerly Eastern Illinois State Teachers College). In 1953, she married Thomas F. Freeman and the couple moved to Houston, where she made a name for herself as a prominent educator and community leader; her husband became a renowned debate coach and philosophy professor. She will celebrate her 101st birthday in August.
ON FINDING PURPOSE
“My purpose is to shine my light and to be an example for others. That’s what we’re all supposed to be. These days, I’m always the oldest around. After I’ve spoken to high school kids, somebody always comes up to me and says, ‘Ms. Freeman, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.’ I think to myself, Okay, I guess I’ve accomplished what I was supposed to accomplish.”
ON EARLY LESSONS ABOUT RACE
“As kids, we had no knowledge of what was going on with Blacks in America, because there was little to nothing in our textbooks about Black people—and if there was, it was that they had done something bad. I remember one lesson referred to slaves as thieves. But my grandpa taught us that they weren’t stealing anything; they were creating. They helped raise the livestock on the farms. My grandmother, who was a slave, became very good at sewing, crocheting, and knitting.”
ON THE FIGHT FOR EQUALITY
“After college, I joined the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. One of my first experiences with that group was shutting down a restaurant. A group of us decided to go have dinner at this place. And of course the manager met us at the door and told us, ‘No Blacks.’ We said, ‘We’re hungry. We’re not going away until you let us in.’ The manager closed the door and locked it, not allowing any customers in, including white people. Another time, we were fundraising, and I asked a local CEO for a donation. He looked at me and said, ‘When are you people going to stop begging and support yourselves?’ I said, ‘Well, when we become CEOs just like you, when we have jobs that pay us just like you pay your employees, maybe we will have enough money to support ourselves.’”
ON READING AND DREAMING
“When I was a kid, there was an old apple tree in our backyard, and many of the branches hung over into the yard next door, where my best friend, Pat, lived with her grandmother. That tree became a meeting spot for us. We would climb up in the apple tree and discuss the books we read and let our imaginations run wild. We talked about what we would become when we grew up. We had a lot of grandiose ideas—we were going to be known all over the world; we were going to be very wealthy and live in mansions.” [Freeman’s friend Pat is Patricia Roberts Harris, who went on to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Jimmy Carter.]
ON 70 YEARS OF MARRIAGE
“One reason I was able to stay married to Tom for so long was that I didn’t depend on him to make me happy. We respected the fact that we were both educated; we felt secure because we could each make our own way. We didn’t have to depend on each other for anything really, only what we chose. We never had an argument—not once did he raise his voice to me.”
ON HOW TO LIVE A LONG, HAPPY LIFE
“Life can slap you down sometimes. But if you take care of yourself, if you have a sense of humor, if you live a good life, if you love yourself, you’re going to be happy. And others are going to see that joy. My advice is to develop a strong spiritual life, choose your friends wisely—and love, just love.”
About the Journalist and Photographer
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This story was created as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites around Juneteenth 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.
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