Former Rice religion professor, legendary TSU debate coach Thomas Freeman dies at 100

Thomas Freeman, the legendary Texas Southern University debate coach who was the first African American professor to teach in the School of Humanities at Rice, has died at the age of 100.

Thomas Freeman posed with the faculty of Rice University’s Department of Religious Studies in a photograph used in the 1987 Campanile Yearbook. From left to right: Sylvia Louie, Niels Nielsen, Elizabeth Heitman, Werner Kelber, Clyde Manschreck, Thomas Freeman, Warren Frisina, George Rupp (President of Rice University at the time), Don Benjamin, and James Sellers. "Religious Studies Department, Rice University." (1987) Rice University: https://hdl.handle.net/1911/76275.

Thomas Freeman posed with the faculty of Rice University’s Department of Religious Studies in a photograph from the 1987 Campanile. L to R: Sylvia Louie, Niels Nielsen, Elizabeth Heitman, Werner Kelber, Clyde Manschreck, Thomas Freeman, Warren Frisina, George Rupp (President of Rice University at the time), Don Benjamin and James Sellers. “Religious Studies Department, Rice University.” (1987) Rice University: https://hdl.handle.net/1911/76275.

Freeman, who died June 6, coached TSU’s award-winning debate team — which he also founded in 1949 — for 60 years before retiring in 2013. His reputation inspired Denzel Washington and the filmmakers behind “The Great Debaters,” which chronicled an important story in the history of black debate competitions, to visit TSU for pointers from one of the nation’s most prominent debate coaches.

Freeman taught religion courses at Rice from 1972 until 1994. He designed his own courses, which started out small but quickly grew in popularity. In a 2012 interview, Freeman laughed as he talked about becoming a lecturer at a university that was founded as a segregated institution and didn’t admit black students until 1965.

“(W)hen I walked across the campus, (William) Marsh (Rice) must have been turning over in his grave,” Freeman said. “He didn’t want a black student there, and here’s a black teacher. … Now it’s fortunate that succeeding generations saw the error in that kind of thinking, and went to the forefront so that blacks could attend.”

Freeman also noted that one of his TSU students, Robert Bell Jr., later became Rice’s first black administrator and its first full-time black faculty member. Freeman remained involved at Rice even after he stopped teaching in the 1990s. In 2016, he and his wife attended the 50th anniversary Celebration of Black Undergraduate Life at Rice.

Freeman was born June 27, 1919, in Richmond, Virginia. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Virginia Union University and a second bachelor’s degree in divinity from Andover Newton Seminary in Massachusetts. He received his doctorate in homiletics from the University of Chicago in 1948, but Freeman was already teaching and preaching by then.

The first class Freeman taught was in 1947: a religion course at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where one of his students was a young Martin Luther King Jr. In 1949, he joined the faculty at TSU, where his students included such up-and-coming political talents as Barbara Jordan and Mickey Leland. In 1972, he was recruited to teach at Rice.

In addition to teaching full time at TSU, part time at Rice and part time at Houston Community College, Freeman also preached on a weekly basis, serving as the pastor of Mt. Horem Baptist Church in the Fifth Ward for 69 years.

In 2009, the TSU Board of Regents named one of the university’s newest academic units after its longtime professor and coach: the Thomas F. Freeman Honors College. And in 2019, TSU celebrated Freeman’s 100th birthday with a brunch that supported his beloved debate team.

Freeman won countless awards throughout his career and was widely recognized as an educational, religious and community leader throughout the city. He is survived by his wife of 66 years, Clarice Estell, three children, several grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending. Donations may be made in Freeman’s honor to the Dr. Thomas F. Freeman Memorial Fund, which will support and advance the TSU debate team.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misidentified the first African American professor to teach classes at Rice. Kennard Reed Jr., who joined the faculty as a visiting professor of mathematics in 1965 and taught for one year, was the first.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.