HOUSTON – Dr. Thomas Freeman, who spent 70 years as a professor and famed debate coach at Texas Southern University, died Saturday at 100 years old, according to the university.
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 told KPRC 2 in 2019.
Freeman accepted a temporary gig teaching philosophy in 1949 at TSU. During that period, he began to coach students on the art of debating, changing the trajectory of his life. A shift, he said, that he never imaged 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.
Dr. Freeman advised actor Denzel Washington and his creative team, and they went on to produce the 2007 movie, "The Great Debaters.”
Freeman hails from Virginia. He became a minister at 9 years old 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 Horeb Baptist Church in Houston’s Fifth Ward.
Freeman officially retired from teaching in 2013 but kept office hours at the TSU.
While he enjoyed mentoring students, Freeman also noted the value of listening.
“Sit back and say nothing, you would be surprised to know how much you can hear,” he said.
Congressman Al Green wrote a tribute to Freeman on Twitter.
Today, we have lost a legend. A truly free man, who made every effort to liberate and mold the minds of the generations of leaders behind him. Dr. Thomas F. Freeman was not only a great debater but a great husband and father, a great minister, a great man, and a great friend.
The legacy of Dr. Thomas F. Freeman is one that speaks for itself. Words cannot sufficiently describe how much he will be missed. Rest In Peace, dear brother.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis released a statement:
Today, our community suffered a tremendous loss. Before I ever met Dr. Thomas Freeman, I, like many others, had heard of his talent and passion. It was an honor to join the many public figures who were lucky enough to have him as a debate coach at TSU. Through the years, we always remained close and he made sure to call me after he heard me speak to give me his unapologetic notes and critiques. Any ability I have as a public speaker, I owe to him and his lessons will always remain in the back of my mind anytime I give a speech. He is and will continue to be an inspiration to myself and so many others. This loss is felt throughout our entire community and our thoughts are with his wife of 67 years, Clarice, and his family. He was The Great Debater. Debater without peers!
Mayor Sylvester Turner highlighted the impact of Dr. Freeman, personally and in the community:
Last year, I was fortunate to present a proclamation to the incomparable Dr. Thomas F. Freeman on his 100th birthday and name a day in honor of his many accomplishments. I am deeply saddened by his death.
In 2018, I selected Dr. Freeman, as the recipient of the Living Legend Award for the first-ever Mayor’s History Makers Luncheon sponsored by Comcast. As the founding Dean of the Honors College at Texas Southern University, Dr. Freeman indeed was a legendary figure and an inspiration to students for more than seven decades.
He excelled as a public speaker and demanded excellence of the many students who studied under him to sharpen their skills and develop as members of the debate team. Today, students all over the world credit Dr. Freeman for instilling in them strong oratory skills and preparing them to compete at the highest levels, whether that was on a debate stage, in a courtroom, or a corporate boardroom.
Over the years, well-known politicians, musicians, and actors sought his advice.
I was on the debate team at the University of Houston during my freshman and sophomore years. But we all knew that TSU had one of the top debate coaches in the world, and Dr. Freeman motivated me to do my very best.
I extend my prayers and condolences to his family, former students, and the TSU community.
There will never be another Dr. Thomas F. Freeman. The remarkable centenarian was a legend in his own time, and the City of Houston will miss him.
It is with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Texas Southern University icon Dr. Thomas F. Freeman. The esteemed debate coach, orator and teacher began his career at TSU in 1949. pic.twitter.com/8XMltESbeE— Texas Southern University (@TexasSouthern) June 6, 2020
The legacy of Dr. Thomas F. Freeman is one that speaks for itself. Words cannot sufficiently describe how much he will be missed. Rest In Peace, dear brother.— Congressman Al Green (@RepAlGreen) June 6, 2020
We are deeply saddened to share that Texas Southern University icon, Dr. Thomas F. Freeman passed away today, June 6, 2020. The legendary debate coach, orator and philosophy professor began his career at TSU in 1949.… https://t.co/Ea0juGZOCq— NAACP Houston (@NAACPHOU) June 6, 2020
Brandon Walker contributed to this report.