Image credit: Earlie Hudnall (used with permission)
When it came to his students, legendary debate coach Dr. Thomas F. Freeman said, “I’m here to serve. And as long as there’s a need for service, there is a need for my presence.” Freeman, who spent seven decades teaching the art of debate at Historically Black Texas Southern University, died on June 6 at age 100.
In addition to founding and coaching the award-winning debate team at TSU, Freeman served as the university’s chief of forensics, as the art or study of argumentative discourse is called in academic circles, for more than 60 years. Freeman was also one of the first Black lecturers at then-segregated Rice University teaching speech for over 20 years and an adjunct professor at Houston Community College.
Among the hundreds of students who passed through his classroom was U.S. Rep. Barbara Jourdan of Texas, whose training from Freeman was evident when she eloquently presented her argument for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon in 1974. When he was a guest lecturer at Morehouse College, Freeman also taught Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
TSU senior Alexandria Barnaba, a member of the reigning HBCU national championship debate team, was happy when she discovered you didn’t need any experience to join the team. “You don’t have to have previous background or anything in debate, because Dr. Freeman being who he is, is so confident in his abilities, he will take students from the worst of backgrounds and turn them into an amazing speaker or writer, someone who can articulate their plight on any platform.”
These days, Freeman is probably best known for training Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington and the cast of “The Great Debaters,” a 2007 film set in 1935 that is based on groundbreaking debate coach Melvin Tolson and the debate team at Wiley College, a small all-black institution in Marshall, Texas.
Washington asked Freeman for his help preparing the actors for their roles as champion debaters. According to Barnaba, Freeman said he couldn’t leave his students and insisted that the Hollywood A-lister and his cast travel to Houston if they wanted his help. Washington, who directed the film and portrayed Tolson, along with members of the movie’s cast and crew complied and were given a personal lesson from Freeman on the Lincoln-Douglas method of
Mentoring to his students was very important to Freeman, and he knew that demanding excellence from them would be helpful in the future. That is why the unofficial motto for the team is: “What we do, we do well; what we don’t do well, we don’t do at all.” In addition to teaching the art of public speaking to his students, Freeman also wanted to prepare them to succeed in the world that existed beyond their often limited horizons. “I had never been to a five-star restaurant until I was on the debate team,” says the current head coach of TSU’s debate team, Dr. Gloria Batiste-Roberts. “Dr. Freeman wanted to make sure that he gave us cultural exposure and that he provided opportunities not only for us to develop as outstanding thinkers and speakers, but also globally.”
Barnaba also recalls the life lessons she learned from Freeman. “Dr. Freeman has always encouraged us to make sure that we never give them a reason to mark us down [in competition] because they’re already looking for one,” she says.
With the TSU team usually being the only school from an HBCU participating in various debate tournaments, Freeman’s students were often the only African Americans seen at the podium. Freeman knew how important it was to deny others the opportunity to define them.
“People are already going to want to count you out,” Barnaba says, adding that Freeman offered them no-nonsense advice: “When you go in there, you remember your debate team decorum: you clap for the other opponents, you sit quietly, you don’t get on your phone, no chewing gum, present yourself in full debate attire.”
Knowing his calling early in life, Freeman delivered his first sermon at his childhood church in Virginia, which inspired him to become a preacher. And preach he did at his home church, Mt. Horem Baptist Church in Houston, where he ministered there for 69 years.
Freeman’s legacy will live on at TSU. Once students and faculty are allowed to return to campus, Batiste-Roberts says she will keep Freeman’s office the way it is as a memorial. “And once we get back on the circuit, we’ll be doing the same thing that we’ve been doing for the last 70 years, trying to win trophies and win awards.”