Legendary debate coach Dr. Thomas F. Freeman, who taught MLK, dies at 100

The Texas Southern University debate coach had a 70-year career.

June 8, 2020, 4:13 AM

Legendary Texas Southern University debate coach Dr. Thomas F. Freeman has died at 100, the university has announced.

Tributes are pouring in for the renowned orator and teacher who passed away on Saturday. Freeman's children confirmed that he died from natural causes, just weeks ahead of his 101st birthday later this month, according to The Houston Chronicle.

He trained thousands of students over his seven-decade career, including Martin Luther King Jr., while King was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Freeman also taught Reps. Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland, as well as Grammy Award-winning singer Yolanda Adams.

Texas Southern University professor Thomas Freeman speaks outside his office, June 18, 2002, in Houston.
Pat Sullivan/AP, FILE

He was tapped by Oscar-winner Denzel Washington to work with young actors for the 2007 film "The Great Debaters," which tells the real-life story of a 1930s black debate squad that defeats an all-white team.

Members of the current Texas Southern University debate team shared some of their experiences with Freeman recently with ABC News anchor David Muir in Houston.

"I started at Texas Southern with Doc (Freeman)," debate team president Prince Ibe told Muir. "It's just a positive, beautiful experience that I'll never forget."

Dominque Montgomery, a debate team member, said Freeman never missed a day of work and was still shaping minds even as he neared his 101st birthday.

"You were talking about a man that came to work every day, even at 100," Montgomery said. "Even if we weren't there, he was still at work."

Angelica Olunkwa said Freeman went on every trip with the team, riding the buses or flying overseas for international competitions.

And, the debate team said Freeman taught them not only about debating, but also how to carry themselves and how to be heard. Alexandria Barnaba, a debate team member, said he always pushed his students to do their best.

"It's in our motto," Barnaba told Muir. "We all know what we do."

"We do well," the debate team said in unison. "What we don't do well, we don't do at all."

Members of the debate team at Texas Southern University discuss with ABC News anchor David Muir the legacy of Dr. Thomas Freeman, the George Floyd protests and their message to the world.
ABC News

"The beauty of Dr. Freeman himself is that his legacy is instilled in everyone who interacts with him," Montgomery told Muir.

During an interview with ABC News last year, Freeman reflected on his legacy at the headquarters of the Texas Southern University debate team, where he was still teaching at the age of 100 after starting his career there in 1949.

Freeman, whose teams won dozens of debate championships, said the key to being a great debater is to "have a devotion to the truth ... [and] the facts."

When asked about racism in America, Freeman said that "unless something is done to stem the tide, we're going to be suffering for a long time."

Among those paying tribute to Freeman on social media are Texas Rep. Al Green, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.

"Today, we have lost a legend," Green wrote on Twitter. "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."

Just days before his death, Freeman and his wife, Clarice, shared with Houston ABC affiliate KTRK the secret to maintaining their 67-year marriage, telling the station that one of the keys is having "a genuine respect for each other."

"I think everybody was born with a plan," Clarice said. "That plan for me was to fall in love with Thomas Freeman. And the rest is history -- 67 years of history."

Related Topics