Dr. Thomas Freeman: Legendary TSU debate professor celebrates 100th birthday

Brandon Walker reporting.

HOUSTON – The corridor leading to his office offers a timeline of time’s capsules: pictures of trailblazing Houstonians, the likes of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Congressman Mickey Leland, deck the halls.

Trophies by the hundreds line shelves and tabletops and a panoply of portraits honor the man whose life’s work has been to honor others.

Dr. Thomas Freeman isn’t much for pomp and circumstance. He’d rather not sit in the limelight, yet Thursday, he sat front-and-center.

Birthday celebration

After 70 years as a professor and famed debate coach at Texas Southern University, Freeman celebrated his 100th birthday.

It's quite the accomplishment, sure, but Freeman has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.

"I haven't stopped and looked at what I have done. I've been doing," Freeman said.

Doing, as it turns out, happens to be the secret that’s kept him going.


Much has been said about Freeman’s legacy at Texas Southern University. His legacy has been highlighted on the silver screen by actor Denzel Washington in the 2007 film, "The Great Debaters."

Washington portrayed Freeman. A photo of the pair also sits on display outside Freeman’s office.

Unexpected legacy

By most accounts, Freeman’s story at TSU is legendary. It's a journey he didn’t initially set out to traverse.

"I was under contract to come only for nine months. I was a minister in Richmond, Virginia," Freeman said while reminiscing about what was meant to be a temporary gig teaching philosophy in 1949.

During that period, he began to coach students on the art of debating, thus marking a turn not even Freeman imagined his life would take.

“I worked with students for about three months and then took them to Harvard and to the University of Chicago. They won both debates," he said.

The rest is history.

Freeman hails from Virginia. He became a minister at 9 and knew he’d been called by God to preach. He continued to do so once his temporary stay in Houston became permanent, preaching at Mount Horem Baptist Church in Houston’s Fifth Ward.

While he officially retired from teaching in 2013, Freeman still keeps office hours. To him, it’s about the students he mentors. Perhaps his most cherished lesson is one that speaks volumes, despite needing nary a word to teach: listen.

"Sit back and say nothing, you would be surprised to know how much you can hear," Freeman said.

Weekend events

Texas Southern University has planned a weekend of celebrations in honor of Freeman’s 100th birthday.


Freeman officially retired his papers and books to the TSU Heartman Collection, a special archive of more than 11,000 books, pamphlets, slave narratives and other documents.


In the evening, there will be a musical celebration. Gospel Fest will be held at Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, located at 3015 N. MacGregor Way.


Texas Southern University will celebrate Freeman with a birthday brunch.

Ticket information

Information about tickets and other information can be found here.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.