Richmond’s new interim police chief on Thursday vowed to “get the city back” after weeks of civil unrest stemming from protests of police brutality.
“We, as a community, need to step up and take our community back because too many sit in silence,” the interim chief, Maj. William V. “Jody” Blackwell, told reporters on Thursday. “I hear fear, I’m afraid. However, my love for this city and my love for these men and women will not cause me a challenge as far as reacting. We’re going to get the city back.”
Less than 48 hours after taking the helm of the department, Blackwell expressed his frustration with the position in which the protests have placed his officers: “It frustrates me to no end. I have some of the greatest men and women employed by the Richmond Police Department and they stand judged by people who refuse to even sit down and talk to us civilly.”
“We didn’t ask for any of this, including me being here,” Blackwell said in response to a question about morale. “But we’re going to make do with what we’ve got and we’re going to continue to push forward.”
Blackwell is a 22-year veteran of the department who fatally shot a man 18 years ago. He most recently held the position of chief of staff and said he was proud to work alongside the men and women of the RPD. “I am committed to the members of the Richmond Police Department to remain who I am and to lead by example,” he said.
His comments came two days after Mayor Levar Stoney announced that Chief William Smith had resigned at the mayor’s request. The mayor had been scheduled to introduce Blackwell to the community at Thursday’s news conference at the RPD Training Academy. But a police spokesman said Stoney would not be doing so because he was meeting with several police officers.
In the lobby of the academy, a group of officers waited to meet with Stoney, wearing shirts that said “I stand with 2140,” referring to Smith’s badge number.
“In the city, we are faced with some trying times, including the civil unrest at a level that many of us have not seen before” coupled with the health challenges of a pandemic, Blackwell said. “I recognize the challenges that we as a community have to face.”
“The strength of our city is truly being tested,” he said, adding that as a society “we need to improve race relations, combat discrimination and racism.”
“As law enforcement professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure we treat all citizens fairly and equally in all of our dealings,” he said. “I am committed to maintain our high levels of accountability both within and outside of our department.”
After speaking for about five minutes, dodging one question, and giving a passionate defense of his department, Blackwell left the news conference to cheers from the onlooking officers.
Afterward, Stoney met with the dozens of officers. The meeting, which the media wasn’t allowed to attend, lasted about 90 minutes.
“They were able to express to me their exhaustion, their frustrations, as well,” Stoney said. “They wanted to express that to me, what they’re going through. I heard them. I understand exactly where they’re coming from. ... But they support Chief Blackwell and his leadership and they understand that we’re going to get through this and we’re going have a safe city, without a doubt.”
When asked if he’d be resigning, Stoney grinned and said: “No.”
Stoney’s announcement on Tuesday that Blackwell was replacing Smith came amid what appeared to be escalating clashes between protesters and police.
The naming of a new chief this week also followed an incident in which a Richmond officer drove an SUV through protesters blocking the vehicle’s path Saturday night at the Robert E. Lee statue, and came two weeks after Richmond police dispensed tear gas into a crowd of protesters at the Lee monument without warning, more than 20 minutes before mandatory curfew.
Stoney said earlier this week that using “tear gas, rubber bullets and nonlethal recourse should be the last resort.” On Thursday, he denied actively directing the department’s responses or actions, and defended the department after hearing from its rank-and-file.
“We’ve asked a lot of the Richmond Police Department recently,” Stoney said, adding that two officers have been shot in recent weeks. “They’ve been hit with bricks, they’ve been hit with cinder blocks, and stones, and urine and other caustic material.”
Blackwell brushed off a question from a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter about his fatal shooting of a man in 2002.
“It’s a completely different situation,” Blackwell said in declining to discuss the case. “That’s not what we’re here for today.”
A Richmond grand jury heard evidence in that case and did not return an indictment against Blackwell.
According to police at the time, Jeramy O. Gilliam pointed a gun at Blackwell, who swept Gilliam’s arm to the side and then grappled with him. While they wrestled, Blackwell — fearing for his life — fired his own gun into Gilliam’s back, police officials contended.
The encounter unfolded after police responded for a report of a burglary and Blackwell saw Gilliam walking in the 2300 block of Idlewood Avenue, roughly three blocks from a burglary scene, according to Times-Dispatch coverage of the incident. Blackwell asked to see Gilliam’s identification, though he didn’t match the description of the suspect, before Gilliam reportedly pointed the gun at Blackwell.
It was the fifth fatal shooting by Richmond police officers in a little more than a year, putting the department under intense scrutiny. Ultimately, just one officer, not Blackwell, was charged in one of the shootings. That officer was tried three times, and after two mistrials was acquitted in February 2004.
Stoney, when asked about the 2002 shooting on Thursday, said that he is aware of Blackwell’s record and that he supports the chief.
“I like his record of service,” Stoney said of Blackwell after his meeting with officers. “He is a former Marine who brings discipline and the sort of composure necessary to be a chief of a police department during these uncertain times. I believe in his leadership and I know that he’s the man to get the job done.”
Blackwell joined the department in December 1997 and has served as commander of the 4th Precinct, which was recognized as “Precinct of the Year” for crime reduction three consecutive years during his time in charge, according to a news release issued from a police department spokesman. Blackwell also was a member of the SWAT team and is the department’s most recent graduate of the FBI National Academy.
The chief’s statements on Thursday were met with some pushback online.
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, tweeted about the 2002 shooting involving the new chief: “Richmond’s interim police chief just held his first press conference, where he angrily promised to ‘take the city back’ and said that his involvement in a shooting is irrelevant to what’s happening now in Richmond. This does not inspire confidence.”
The activist group Richmond For All said on Twitter that the appointment of Blackwell “reinforces what the public already knew: justice lies in the hands of the people, not the police. Community oversight now.”
Allan-Charles Chipman, who is running for Richmond City Council, called it “disturbing news” that the new chief didn’t want to discuss the incident with the media.
“Is this the ‘good job’ Levar Stoney was talking about? Is Levar’s vision of accountability promoting this type of activity?”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, promised no “retreat to the past” as she declared her candidacy Thursday for the Democratic nomination to become the next governor of Virginia.
McClellan would be the first woman, as well as the second African American, elected to the state’s highest office.
McClellan has represented the Richmond area in the General Assembly for 15 years, but she said “there’s no playbook” as she launched her campaign amid public unrest over police treatment of African Americans and an ongoing health crisis that has crippled Virginia’s economy.
“I know that this is not a moment to retreat to the past, but to step boldly into the future,” she said in a video announcing her campaign. “We must rebuild our economy stronger, more inclusive, without leaving people behind.”
McClellan is the second African American woman and legislator to formally announce she is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2021. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, declared her candidacy last month to join what is expected to be a crowded field that includes Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, Attorney General Mark Herring and, potentially, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, has announced she will seek the GOP nomination. Entrepreneur Pete Snyder, who sought the 2013 Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, is considering a run.
McClellan, a 47-year-old corporate lawyer, says her candidacy is about creating a better future for Virginians, not about her gender or race. “I’m not running to be the first African American woman governor of Virginia,” she said in an interview.
“A lot of people will focus on the uniqueness of my candidacy,” she said, “but these are unique times.”
More than three months of tumult began with Gov. Ralph Northam’s declaration of a public health emergency on March 12 that included a near shutdown of the state economy and public life in response. Now three weeks of intense street demonstrations over police treatment of blacks following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis have toppled monuments to Virginia’s Confederate — and Jim Crow — past.
Recovery doesn’t mean retreat, McClellan said. “Our message can’t be we want to go back to where we were on March 12, because that wasn’t good enough.”
She added: “We need to address systematic inequality going forward and rebuild in a way that does that.”
Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who represents her old House district, thinks McClellan has the right qualities to lead Virginia through challenging times.
“She has an understanding and keen awareness of how government works, but more importantly how government can work and should work for everyone,” said Bourne, one of 15 elected officials and public figures who have endorsed her, including Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield; Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico; and Hanover County Supervisor Faye Prichard.
Bourne, who also is African American, thinks McClellan has the right temperament to help bind the racial wounds opened by Floyd’s death in police custody last month and the sometimes violent demonstrations that have followed.
“I’m not sure we can heal in a matter of four years,” he said. “It took us 400 years to get here.”
McClellan is well-regarded as a prolific public policymaker and orator, but she said her primary goal is to listen to Virginians who “feel unheard” as they ask government to help them with jobs, education, health care and safe communities.
“You can’t separate public safety, education, the economy and health care,” she said. “You have to look at all of them together.”
Her legislative record in the most recent General Assembly session encompasses work on energy policy to address climate change, raising the minimum wage and extending it to domestic workers, establishing a state-run health insurance exchange, preventing housing discrimination, protecting women’s right to abortion and reproductive health care, requiring people to report the loss or theft of firearms, establishing standards for political redistricting, and creating a commission on modernization of public schools, to which she was appointed this week.
Vice chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, McClellan sponsored legislation to repeal vestiges of state laws that enshrined racial segregation. She also was reappointed this week to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission, which she leads, and the Task Force on Preservation of the History of Former Enslaved African Americans.
Education, civil rights roots
Her family history is rooted in education and the struggle of African Americans for civil rights. Her paternal great-great-grandfather was an emancipated slave and her grandfather was a civil rights attorney in Nashville, Tenn., who helped to defend protesters who staged sit-ins at the city’s downtown lunch counters in 1960.
McClellan’s mother, Lois Dedeaux McClellan, was the third of 14 children who grew up on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and the first to graduate from high school and college. Her late father, James F. McClellan Jr., was an educator who worked as a professor of guidance and director of testing at Virginia State University, a historically black institution in Ettrick in southern Chesterfield County.
He also was an ordained minister who was pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Petersburg, where McClellan was born in 1972.
She grew up in southern Chesterfield County and graduated from Matoaca High School, then earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Richmond and law degree at the University of Virginia. After a stint at the Hunton & Williams law firm, now known as Hunton Andrews Kurth, she joined Verizon, a telecommunications giant that includes Virginia’s largest telephone company.
McClellan was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2006 and served until 2017, when she was elected to the Senate to succeed U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th.
She has long been eyed as a likely Democratic candidate for statewide office, but she has juggled her corporate job with the seasonal demands of the legislature and being a mother to two young children. She is married to David Mills, former executive director of the state Democratic Party.
McClellan was not coy about her political ambitions in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in late 2016 before her election to the Senate.
“I say this as a joke, but it’s also true,” she said then. “Any Virginia politician who tells you they don’t want to be governor is a liar.”
McClellan faces a campaign like no other because of the constraints of social distancing and avoiding crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which has infected more than 56,000 Virginians and killed almost 1,600.
Her challenge is to find multiple ways to “meet people where they are,” but she said her campaign will rely on “good old grassroots organizing.”
“You have to talk to them, you have to listen to them,” she said. “You have to understand their anxieties.
“I’ve always been a good listener.”
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Virginia will have to continue to hold off on taking down the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.
A Richmond judge on Thursday extended indefinitely an injunction barring the state from removing the statue, the most well-known Confederate symbol in the former capital of the Confederacy.
The statue has received increased scrutiny in the three weeks of protests in Richmond over police brutality and racial injustice.
“Well, the state seems to think that the monument is the property of the governor,” said Circuit Judge Bradley B. Cavedo, according to a transcript of the hearing.
“My view is that the monument is the property of the people of the commonwealth and that the governor is more of a custodian or fiduciary on their behalf.”
Referring to plaintiff William C. Gregory, the judge added: “Mr. Gregory is a citizen of the commonwealth,” and “until someone proves otherwise to me, he is a part owner of the monument.” Cavedo has set another hearing in the case for July 23.
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered on June 4 that the Department of General Services remove the statue “as soon as possible.” While state employees inspected the 130-year-old statue in preparation for its removal, Cavedo issued a temporary injunction on June 8 that barred the state from removing it.
Thursday’s ruling and the June 8 injunction came in response to a lawsuit filed by Gregory, the great-grandson of two signatories of the 1890 deed that transferred ownership of the land for the statue over to the state.
The lawsuit argues that under the terms of the agreement and a legislature-approved resolution, the state is supposed to consider the monument and the area around it “perpetually sacred” and “faithfully guard it and affectionately protect it.”
Joseph Blackburn Jr., one of Gregory’s lawyers, said during the hearing: “The commonwealth must honor its contracts like anyone else.”
Cavedo granted Attorney General Mark Herring’s motion to dismiss the complaint because of lack of standing, but gave Gregory’s lawyers 21 days to file a new complaint. “Standing” refers to the ability of a party in a case to demonstrate a stake in the outcome.
“I want Mr. Blackburn to have another shot at it,” Cavedo said.
Blackburn declined to comment after the hearing.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said the administration is pleased with the judge dismissing the lawsuit but disappointed by the injunction’s extension.
“We are evaluating the specific next steps, but make no mistake — this statue will be removed,” she said.
Herring, who attended Thursday’s hearing, said afterward that he was disappointed by the extension, but felt confident that the judge would also dismiss the amended complaint.
“The governor is well within his rights to direct that the statue come down and it should come down,” Herring said.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the Virginia Supreme Court is likely to have the final say in the case “because the losing party in the Circuit Court will appeal.”
“It is difficult to understand why Judge Cavedo indefinitely extended the injunction, because the requirements for doing so set a high bar,” Tobias said. “Plaintiffs did not appear to meet those requirements, as meticulously shown by the Attorney General’s brief.”
That brief, filed Tuesday, argued that the 1890 deed does not prevent the governor from removing the statue or entitle Gregory to an injunction.
“The only question is whether a single plaintiff may call upon the equitable powers of this court and use 130-year-old documents and inapplicable doctrines of property law to countermand the governor’s decision. He cannot,” Herring’s brief said.
In Cavedo’s initial 10-day injunction, he wrote that it was in the public interest to delay any action until the resolution of the lawsuit.
Two other lawsuits challenging the planned removal have been filed, including one by six Monument Avenue residents who said removing statues on the street would decrease property values and hurt tax incentives. The statue is in a federally recognized historic district.
A lawyer for the Monument Avenue residents sought Wednesday to consolidate that lawsuit with the Gregory case. The plaintiffs in that case could become the plaintiffs in the new complaint in the Gregory case.
While some residents object to the removal, the neighborhood association said in a statement last week that it supports getting rid of the Lee statue and others.
“For too long, we have overlooked the inherent racism of these monuments, and for too long we have allowed the grandeur of the architecture to blind us to the insult of glorifying men for their roles in fighting to perpetuate the inhumanity of slavery,” said the Monument Avenue Preservation Society’s board of directors.
All nine members of the Richmond City Council have said they support removing the four other Confederate statues on the street. One, Jefferson Davis, was pulled down by protesters last week. The city can’t take down those symbols until a new state law takes effect July 1, giving localities control of war memorials.
The Lee statue, built in France and unveiled in May 1890 in front of roughly 150,000 people, is under state control.
Since Northam’s June 4 announcement, the Lee statue has served as a rallying point for protesters and community members who have gathered around it and marveled at the graffiti that now covers much of the pedestal the statue stands on.
Concrete barriers surround the Lee circle, installed by the Department of General Services on Wednesday in preparation for the statue’s removal. Those barriers remained Thursday, with the future of the statue still unclear.
Only three members of the news media were allowed inside the Richmond courtroom where Cavedo heard the case. Press members, including a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, were seated inside the courtroom shortly before the hearing was scheduled to start. A sheriff’s deputy then asked everyone in the courtroom, which had a capacity of 60 people, to leave the room, citing COVID-19 restrictions.
Lawyers in the case were allowed inside, along with three members of the media selected by other members of the press corps. The three were Sarah Rankin of The Associated Press, Brad Kutner of Courthouse News and Henry Graff of NBC12.
“As much as possible, cases like this need to be done in open court with the press allowed to observe,” Herring said after the hearing. “This is a case that is of great importance to the people of Virginia so I’m hopeful that any other future proceedings will be held in a setting in which members of the press are able to fully observe.”
The sheriff’s deputy declined to open the doors of the courtroom so others could hear the arguments from the hallway.
WASHINGTON — In a defeat for President Donald Trump, the Supreme Court on Thursday rejected his plan to repeal the popular Obama-era order that protected “Dreamers,” the approximately 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children.
Led by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court called the decision to cancel the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, arbitrary and not justified. The program allows these young people to register with the government and, if they have a clean criminal record, to obtain a work permit and be assured they will not be deported. At least 27,000 DACA recipients are employed as health care workers.
Trump had been confident that the high court, with its majority of Republican appointees, would rule in his favor and say the chief executive had the power to “unwind” the policy.
But the chief justice joined with the four liberals to rule that Trump and his administration had failed to give an explanation for why it was repealing a popular and widely lauded program, a violation of federal law.
But the justices did not decide that Trump’s repeal violated the Constitution or immigration law. Instead, the majority blocked the repeal on the grounds that Trump’s team had failed to explain its rationale as required by the Administrative Procedure Act. Adopted in the 1940s in response to the New Deal and the massive growth of government, the act requires officials to explain and justify abrupt changes in regulatory rules.
Usually, the chief justice and the court’s conservatives argue for deferring to the federal government on regulatory matters, particularly in an area like immigration. But that policy of deference also requires the justices to have confidence in the decision-making process within the government.
Thursday’s decision is the latest sign that Roberts, who spent much of January presiding over Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate, may be growing increasingly skeptical about decisions that come out of the Trump administration.
The decision made for an unusually bad week for Trump and conservatives.
On Monday, the court rejected the Trump administration’s position that a 1964 civil rights law should not protect LGBTQ workers from discrimination, and separately it sided with California in a legal battle over so-called sanctuary laws protecting immigrants. The justices also turned down a series of appeals urging the court to expand gun rights.
Until this week, conservatives had been confident that they had a lock on the high court with Trump’s two court appointees — Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. But Gorsuch wrote Monday’s 6-3 opinion upholding civil rights for LGBTQ employees. And Roberts has now joined the liberals to knock down one of Trump’s signature immigration initiatives.
“Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” Trump tweeted Thursday.
Trump dismissed the ruling as “highly political” and “seemingly not based on the law,” and used it as an opportunity to campaign for his re-election. “These horrible & politically charged decisions coming out of the Supreme Court are shotgun blasts into the face of people that are proud to call themselves Republicans or Conservatives.”
He said it underscored the need to appoint more conservatives to the Supreme Court and repeated his promise to only appoint future justices from a list of candidates hand-picked and vetted by conservative groups.
The fight over DACA already promised to play big in the 2020 election, with presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign emphasizing his commitment to providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers as it seeks to mobilize Latino voters in key battleground states such as Arizona.
“The Supreme Court’s ruling today is a victory made possible by the courage and resilience of hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who bravely stood up and refused to be ignored,” Biden said in a statement. “As president, I will immediately work to make it permanent by sending a bill to Congress on day one of my administration.”
Democratic leaders said Thursday that they believe the court’s decision — and Trump’s reaction to it — will motivate Latino voters even more.
“If Donald Trump wins in November, he will end DACA,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, in a call with reporters. “For every voter who cares about Dreamers, please understand this: The future of Dreamers depends 100% on the outcome of the November election. … We can’t lift our foot off the gas, and we won’t.”
The DACA case affects the lives and careers of hundreds of thousands of young people who are called “Dreamers”
Thursday’s decision, in Department of Homeland Security vs. Regents of the University of California, is similar to last year’s ruling that blocked Trump’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
On Thursday, Roberts spoke for the same 5-4 majority, and his opinion follows the same reasoning. The chief justice said Trump’s Homeland Security Department did not put forth a valid reason for revoking the DACA program, just as he said Trump’s Commerce Department did not provide a valid reason for adding the citizenship question.
“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote. “We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what, if anything, to do about the hardship to DACA recipients. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner.”
The court ordered that the case be remanded so that the Homeland Security Department could better explain its actions. Meanwhile, DACA will remain in effect. While the administration could now devise a new explanation, there is little or no chance a second attempt to end DACA would win approval from the courts this year.
“It’s not that Chief Justice Roberts is a closet progressive. He’s not. It’s that the Trump administration is really bad at administrative law,” Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, tweeted in response to the ruling.
It is a remarkable turn of events for Roberts and the court. Two years ago, the chief justice wrote a 5-4 opinion deferring to Trump and upholding his travel ban on foreign visitors and immigrants. Now he has switched sides in several momentous cases and blocked Trump’s action as unwarranted and unjustified.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined in the decision. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh voted to uphold Trump’s plan.
Dr. Thomas F. Freeman’s roll call of students included orators as persuasive as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan. His debate team, from a historically black college, took down the mighty Harvard.
As a boy, public speaking didn’t come easy to the Richmond native. But Dr. Freeman, who died in Houston on June 6, three weeks shy of his 101st birthday, mastered it and believed others could do the same.
“He demanded excellence. And he demanded things from people that they didn’t think they were capable of doing,” said his daughter Carlotta Freeman, a psychiatrist living in Los Angeles. “Dad used to say, ‘If they’re breathing, they have potential.’ So he never turned anyone away.”
Dr. Freeman would go on to become the renowned debate coach at Texas Southern University in Houston, pastor churches, and prep actor and director Denzel Washington on the art of debate. He was a man of multiple callings: teacher, preacher, speaker and mentor.
“By the age of 9, my grandfather was putting him on the soapbox, and he was preaching,” his daughter said Wednesday, hours after TSU’s memorial service for her father. “And he talked of how he had such terrible stage fright, that when he would stand there preaching, tears would roll down his face. And the women would think, ‘Oh, my God, he’s been struck by the Spirit.’ But the truth was, he was scared to death.”
Dr. Freeman was the son of Louis H. Freeman, who ran a wholesale produce business near the Blues Armory, and Louise Willis Freeman, a devout homemaker. He was an intellectually gifted youth who finished Armstrong High School at 15.
His nephew, Emory Freeman of Richmond, called his uncle’s achievements “a testimony not only to his will and his character, but to the foundation that he gained from the Richmond Public School system and the HBCU within Richmond, Virginia Union University.”
After earning an English degree from VUU, Dr. Freeman went on to Andover Newton Theological School and the University of Chicago Divinity School before returning to Richmond to serve as pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, then in Jackson Ward.
Along the way, he impressed a dean at Texas Southern, who invited him to teach for nine months. He arrived on campus in 1949 with the intention of returning to Richmond when he was done.
As part of his religion class, he had his students engage in debate. The students realized they’d found a coach for what would be a fledgling debate team; he agreed.
“He came here with the intention of doing one thing, but God had a different plan for him,” his daughter said.
He became pastor of Houston’s Mount Horem Baptist Church and never truly left the church or TSU, where he kept office hours until the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. He’d also taught at Rice University.
“Dad went to work every day of the week if he could,” recalled Carlotta Freeman.
“He was at one of three places. If he wasn’t at the office or wasn’t at home, he was working somewhere, giving a speech, receiving an award or preaching at a church,” she said; he never gave the same speech or sermon, and they were always from memory.
Her father said in an interview that the debate team “provides an opportunity for total development.” The acquired skills “will be used not just for debate, but for the analysis of all the situations that one faces.”
Many of the students he taught, in the classroom or on the debate team, went on to success in corporate or political life.
Washington consulted with Dr. Freeman before directing and starring in the 2007 film “The Great Debaters.” That film was based on the success of the Wiley College (Texas) debate team, which beat Harvard in the movie but actually triumphed over the reigning national champion, the University of Southern California.
Dr. Freeman’s team beat Harvard in real life. But, “it wasn’t about winning trophies for him; it was about doing your best,” said Gloria Batiste-Roberts, who was coached by Freeman and ultimately succeeded him at Texas Southern and as director of the Thomas F. Freeman Center for Forensic Excellence.
He believed students learned by doing and by being provided an opportunity, said Batiste-Roberts, who finished at Texas Southern in 1972 and returned to assist Dr. Freeman two years later.
“He knew if you could communicate adequately and succinctly and beautifully, that you could make it in any profession you entered,” she said.
Dr. Freeman left a lasting impression on one famous orator in particular. He’d taught a summer course at Morehouse College, where one of his students was King, his daughter said. “And it wasn’t until much later that he was with the debate students in an Atlanta restaurant. And Dr. King gets up from where he’s sitting and extends his hand and says, ‘Dr. Freeman. I remember you but you may not remember me.’”
“From that point on they got to know each other personally,” his daughter said. “Daddy has this ability to impact people without his being aware of it.”
Jordan, another of his students, would become the first woman and first African American to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. She also delivered a memorable speech as a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, declaring:
“My faith in the Constitution is whole; it is complete; it is total. And I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction, of the Constitution.”
Dr. Freeman preached at Jordan’s funeral in 1996, his daughter recalled.
“Daddy helped her to find her voice, which is what he did for everyone.”
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