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Dr. Freeman Reflects on His Time at Rice University

Thomas F. Freeman

Sound | 1972, interview recorded 2012

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  •  Dr. Freeman discusses how he acquired a teaching position in the religious studies department at Rice University.  
  •  Dr. Freeman on Rice University's long journey from racial segregation to integration.  
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  •  I was a guest professor in the Department of Religious Studies.  
  •  One of the few blacks on the faculty.  
  •  Well I taught really, I was in Department of Religion, but I taught a creative course every year.  
  •  One was Ethical Dimensions, another one was Social and Ethical Problems,  
  •  another one was Varieties of Religious Arguments, so it wasn't anything standard. 
  •  Marc- What's going through your mind while seeing this? 
  •  TFF- Just reflecting. Did I really do that? Did I get to be in that beautiful environment?  
  •  I was a part of it. It's just something taken for granted.  
  •  M- How did you end up teaching there? Did they approach you? 
  •  TFF- I was, Niels Nielsen who was the Dean of the Department of Religion  
  •  and I were, he was at Yale and I was at Andover Newton, so we got to know each other.  
  •  Ok. I didn't know anything about Neil being at Rice.  
  •  One day Niels came over to see me caught me completely off-guard.  
  •  He said, "Tom, don't you miss teaching?"  
  •  I was then Dean of the Weekend College.  
  •  I said, "Oh, Neil, I certainly do!"  
  •  He said, "Why don't you come on over and teach for us at Rice?"  
  •  I made no application, I filled out nothing.  
  •  He said, "Come on, I want you to meet the dean."  
  •  I was too busy to meet the dean.  
  •  And then President Sawyer called me into his office  
  •  and he said, "Tom, I want to congratulate you."  
  •  I said, "For what?"  
  •  "I have approved your teaching at Rice."  
  •  I said, "What?!"  
  •  "Yes. The President and I talked, and we think it would do both  
  •  schools good to have you teach at Rice."  
  •  That's how I got to Rice.  
  •  I didn't fill out an application, I didn't see the dean, I didn't see anybody.  
  •  And I went over to sit down to get the courses, and I asked Neil,  
  •  I said, "Niels, won't you show me the outline of the courses?"  
  •  He looked at me and said, "Tom, that's why we got you, we don't have outlines. You are to make the outlines."  
  •  That's how I got to . . . Everybody's trying to get to Rice, I make no attempt whatsoever!  
  •  Well. I was well received the whole time I was there, very well received. 
  •  As far as student responses, at Rice, classes are very small.  
  •  My classes were 50 [at TSU]. And you had to sign up a semester in advance to get in the course.  
  •  And the average class at Rice was 8-10. When I first got there, my classes were 6, 7, 8.  
  •  But when I developed these new courses, they just flocked!  
  •  I had to turn them away.  
  •  At that time . . . you see, for a long time, blacks didn't go to Rice.  
  •  Not because they didn't want to, but because the charter stated that no blacks would ever be admitted to Rice. 
  •   For Rice was for white and white only.  
  •  And Rice had to go to court to change the charter so that they could admit blacks.  
  •  Now William Marsh [Rice] contributed millions, and this was his wish and desire,  
  •  that no blacks would ever attend Rice.  
  •  And I think I told Marc that when I walked across the campus,  
  •  Marsh must have been turning over in his grave.  
  •  He didn't want a black student there, and here's a black teacher there.  
  •  Now it's fortunate that succeeding generations saw the error in that kind of thinking.  
  •  And went to the forefront in revising it so that blacks could attend. 
  •  Marc- Were you the second, third African-American instructor? 
  •  TFF- I'm not so sure. I think I was the first, but I'm not sure.  
  •  After I got there, there were blacks who were invited,  
  •  and one of them happened to be one of my students, Dr. Bell,  
  •  who was on the debate team, and then he went off and got his doctorate.  
  •  And they hired him in the Department of Psychology,  
  •  and there was an artist, I don't remember his name, but very few, very few blacks. 
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This video, produced by TAMI, is composed of excerpts from an informal interview with Dr. Freeman voiced over a home movie from his film collection. As scenes play of Dr. Freeman on the Rice campus for his first day of teaching, Freeman recounts how he came to teach at Rice and how he felt when he became one of the first African-American professors at the school. The interview was conducted by TAMI’s Madeline Fendley on September 10, 2012 at Dr. Freeman’s office at TSU. Also heard in the interview is filmmaker Marc Newsome.
Dr. Thomas F. Freeman was born in 1919 in Richmond, Virginia, where he also spent his childhood and attended college. Freeman left Virginia temporarily to serve a nine month contract at Houston's Texas Southern University in 1949. Many decades later, Dr. Freeman is still a professor and debate coach at TSU, on campus six days a week, and has helped multiple generations of young Texan African-American students find their voice and rise to new heights of scholarly achievement. A pillar of the Houston community, Dr. Freeman also has ministered at Mt. Horem Baptist Church for more than 65 years, still delivering sermons every Sunday; taught Religious Studies at Rice University for 20 years; helped found Houston's Model Cities program; founded and served as Dean of TSU's Weekend College; was the Founding Dean of TSU's Honors College; and over the course of his teaching career, taught and influenced many prominent African-Americans leaders, including Otis King, Barbara Jordan, and Martin Luther King, Jr.