More than half a century ago, civil rights attorney Frankie Muse Freeman became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. At that point, she’d already opened her own private legal practice and helped end legal segregation of public housing in St. Louis.
Since that momentous day in 1964, she has continued to fight for civil and human rights. At 100, she’s still active in civic affairs.
On Tuesday, the St. Louis City chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People dedicated a bronze statue in her honor at Broadway and Chestnut Street, near the Old Courthouse.
Freeman’s legacy has inspired generations of young people who are fighting injustice, said the Rev. Darryl Gray, social justice chair of the Missouri Baptist State Convention. Gray, an activist who has been on the front lines of protests of a judge’s decision to find former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley not guilty of murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, said demonstrators of today are following in Freeman’s footsteps, even if they don’t realize it.
“When young folks say ‘this ain’t my grandmama’s movement,’ I look at the very same things they’re doing today, and I look at what Ms. Freeman did yesterday, and I say ‘yes it is,’” Gray said at the commemoration. “Our St. Louis has become our Selma; our Jeff City has become our Birmingham.”
Freeman’s family and friends gathered to honor her at the statue’s dedication, and many shared stories of how she touched their lives.
Her daughter, Shelbe Freeman Bullock, called her mother a "troublemaker" and thanked the sculptor, Brian R. Owens, for letting her touch the clay that would become her mother’s face and hair. Owens created the statue, a bit larger than life-sized, to depict Freeman at mid-career.
The artist has depicted other famous and influential African-Americans, including writer Zora Neale Hurston, across the country.
St. Louis politicians — including state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., Mayor Lyda Krewson and former Mayor Francis G. Slay — testified to Freeman’s influence on their work, on St. Louis and the nation.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., offered a similar tribute.
“There are way too many people in this state and nation who don’t know the story of Frankie Freeman,” McCaskill said.
Freeman received a law degree from Howard University Law School, spent 15 years on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and practiced law into her 90s.
McCaskill said when she faces difficulties in her own career, “I think about Frankie Freeman. And I think about the barriers she faced, at a time when women weren’t lawyers — much less African-American women lawyers. Frankie stood up, stood strong, and went after it.”
Freeman dedicated herself trying to participate fully in society and encouraged others to do so.
“I believe everybody has an individual responsibility,” she said in a 2009 interview played during the ceremony. “American citizens, I love my country, and I think we have to work for it. And absolutely vote. Vote, and vote right.”
The commemoration at once celebrated Freeman’s work and her 101st birthday, which is Friday.
Freeman, who attended the ceremony, stood before it as she expressed gratitude.
“God bless you, God bless the United States, God bless St. Louis,” she told the people who came to honor her. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you.”
Richelle S. Clark, president of St. Louis alumnae chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, praised the lawyer and activist, who once served as the sorority’s national president.
“You will always be in our hearts,” Clark told Freeman. “And we will always remember the standards that you set whenever we visit Kiener Plaza and gaze upon this beautiful tribute to you.
“Congratulations, St. Louis, on having such a matriarch representing our wonderful city.”
Follow Kae M. Petrin on Twitter: @kmaepetrin