Frankie Freeman’s career as a criminal defense lawyer didn’t last long.
Freeman, who died Friday at age 101, was best known for her work on civil rights, housing and education. But starting out, she took any kind of case she could get.
After the Virginia native graduated from law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., she came with her husband back to his native St. Louis in 1948 and tried to find a job – not an easy search for a black woman at the time.
So she scrambled for whatever cases she could find, including having judges in the city’s criminal court assign her clients. One was a defendant who was caught stealing a bathtub from an urban renewal site near downtown.
Police shot him in the leg, so he was in the hospital, under arrest, when Freeman got the case. She arranged a plea bargain that released him from custody when he got out of the hospital. But when she went to collect her fee, she got nowhere.
“He said he couldn’t pay me because he had to pay for his television,” she recalled in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project, adding:
“I didn’t have a television.”
That experience helped Freeman conclude she would be better off concentrating on civil law and more particularly civil rights. That was the field where she made her local and national reputation. She was the first woman named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, where she served for 16 years. She also had a brief tenure as the inspector general for the federal Community Services Administration.
Locally, Freeman made her mark challenging discrimination in public housing and as counsel for the city Housing Authority.
She also worked for many years to improve education in St. Louis, including as co-chair of a task force on the future of the city school system, with former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth.
Freeman’s views on racial harmony and education came together in a statement she issued in 1967, as related in her autobiography, “A Song of Faith and Hope.”
“If in the future,” she wrote, “the adults in our society who make decisions about who gets a job, who lives down the block, or the essential worth of another person are to be less likely to make these decisions on the basis of race or class, the present cycle must be broken in classrooms which provide better education than ever, and in which children of diverse backgrounds came come to know one another.”
Marie Frankie Muse was born Nov. 24, 1916, in Virginia, the oldest of eight children. She was named after her grandfather, Frank Muse, a tobacco farmer, and no one ever used her real first name.
She recalled in her memoir, published in 2003, that her family included a lot of relatives in the area, of both races.
“All my ancestors, on the maternal and paternal side, were connected in some way with white folks,” Freeman wrote, noting that there were so many family members around, there was a section called Museville. “We are all colors in my family. In Virginia, there are black Muse families and white Muse families, all related.”
Danville was heavily segregated, from the buses to the movie theaters, the churches to the schools. To get downtown from where she lived, she had to walk through a block where the residents were all white.
“As we passed by,” Freeman remembered, “the white children playing in the yards would often smile and say in an undertone, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ We smiled back and responded, ‘cracker, cracker, cracker.’ Nobody frowned, and no voices were raised; the white children kept on playing, and we kept on walking.”
At age 16, Freeman graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and took a train to enroll at Hampton Institute, her mother’s alma mater, where she majored in math. She set her sights on becoming a lawyer.
“Racial segregation and discrimination were pervasive,” she wrote, “and I was always saying to myself, ‘Later for you.’ I wanted to change things, to do something that would be effective.”
Leaving Hampton a year early, she moved to New York City, where she lived with an aunt in Harlem. There, she met Shelby Freeman of St. Louis, who had graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City. They were married in 1938 and had a daughter, Pat, the following year.
When Shelby got a civil service job with the Army in 1941, the family moved to Washington, D.C. There, Freeman decided to attend law school at Howard University – what she considered a “mecca” for Negro students at the time.
She became pregnant with her son during her second year and was due to deliver just as her third year in school was about to start. She was sent home to have the baby, but she went to register for classes instead and her son was born four days later.
Coming to St. Louis
After graduating second in her class in 1947, the family moved to St. Louis the following year. Freeman was sworn in to the Missouri Bar and went looking for a job. The hunt wasn’t easy.
“In those days,” she recalled, “the law was absolutely a male-dominated profession – and the fact that I wanted to try cases made it all the worse. Since I am female and black, people will sometimes ask: ‘Freeman, have you been discriminated against more because of your race or your sex?’ And I say, ‘I don’t know, but I have scar tissue from both.’”
After her brief, unsuccessful brush with criminal cases, Freeman decided to focus on civil law. She became active with the NAACP, which had been instrumental in local discrimination cases such as that of Lloyd Gaines, who fought for admission to the University of Missouri law school, and the landmark case Shelley vs. Kraemer, in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racially restrictive housing covenants.
What she considered her first civil rights case involved three black brothers who wanted to study airplane mechanics in the St. Louis city schools. Though the system offered such a course at its white tech school, Hadley, it wasn’t available at the black tech school, Washington.
Freeman won the case but lost the larger battle. Ordered to offer the same courses to both black and white students, the city schools simply dropped airplane mechanics from the curriculum at Hadley.
“It was also a learning experience to see how far people would go to maintain racial segregation,” she wrote, “and how shortsighted they were in undervaluing people on the basis of race. It didn’t then – and it doesn’t now – make any sense at all. Some of it was so ridiculous that you could almost laugh at it, except that it was not a laughing matter.”
In 1952, she won a class-action fair housing suit involving two projects in St. Louis – Cochran for whites and Pruitt for blacks. The city’s Housing Authority argued that it had to keep the races separate because it had “a duty and responsibility under the law to preserve peace and order in the community for the protection and welfare of both races and, in the interest of public safety, to prevent racial conflicts and violence.”
“The policy of operating separate housing projects for the two races is reinforced by recognized natural aversion to the physical closeness inherent in integrated housing from members of races that do not mingle socially.”
Freeman’s pithy rejoinder in her memoir:
“A recognized natural aversion between the races!”
And in response to allegations that the lawsuit was brought not by “local Negroes” but by outsiders seeking to “stir up strife and racial conflict in a period of economic emergency and housing shortage,” she wrote:
“Well, talking about giving us motivation to continue!”
After a judge barred the Housing Authority from using race as a factor in placing residents, the authority decided not to appeal – and hired Freeman as its first associate general counsel.
On the national scene
As a charter member of the Missouri State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Freeman came to the attention of the White House. She was summoned to the White House on Nov. 17, 1963, to discuss becoming the first woman member of the federal commission; six days later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and she thought her chance for the job was gone.
But the next year, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was in St. Louis on Valentine’s Day to help the city celebrate its bicentennial, Freeman was summoned to his suite at the Chase-Park Plaza to discuss the position. She had a hard time convincing security that she really had a meeting with the president, but she managed to talk her way in.
She recalled telling Johnson she wasn’t sure she should be in such a distinguished group, which included the president of Notre Dame and the dean of the Harvard law school.
“’Oh, Mrs. Freeman,’ he said, ‘I think you can handle all those deans!’”
Johnson said the FBI would be doing a background check on her, and he wanted to know whether she had been in any organizations he should know about.
“I thought frantically,” she wrote later, “and said, ‘I’m a Baptist!’ I knew he was talking about a communist group or something like that, but I couldn’t think of anything along those lines. He just smiled at me and said, ‘I think that will be all right.’”
As a “twofer” on the commission – its first woman and its only black member at the time – Freeman became involved in civil rights as the nation often was in turmoil over the issue, with freedom rides, riots and other turbulent milestones.
She left the commission after 16 years to become inspector general of the Community Services Administration under President Jimmy Carter – and was fired from that post the day that Ronald Reagan became president. She was asked to remain as a consultant to the agency, but refused.
“I did not want to be associated with an administration that would do business in this way,” Freeman wrote. “It was just plain gross.”
In St. Louis, she resumed her law practice on a reduced schedule. Her son, Butch, had died many years before from the lingering effects of childhood encephalitis, and her husband died in 1991 after suffering several heart attacks. She is survived by her daughter and grandchildren.
Freeman remained active in the public sphere, at the intersection of civil rights and education. In both areas, she always urged her audience to “do your homework,” get involved and make sure you do what you can to improve lives around you.
A common challenge in her speeches was this:
“’If you found yourself in an emergency, whom would you call? Would any of the 10 friends you called be a person of another color?’ While some people see continuing racism among your young people, I personally see a generational shift in the answer to this question. While people my age would probably know only one or two people of another color, my grandson’s best friend might well be a person of another color. That is where the hope lies today.”
Freeman was recognized with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame in University City in 2015 and has received honorary degrees from several universities, including Washington University, Saint Louis U., the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Howard University and Hampton University. The NAACP named her a recipient of its Spingarn Medal, its highest honor, in 2011.