The remarkable women featured in this piece are members of a generation of Black leaders that has seen a lot: economic booms and busts, wars, a dozen or more presidents, a pandemic. What they have in common, beyond longevity (they’re all age 75 or older), is resilience. They have all fought fiercely for equality, for opportunity, for the soul of future generations. We asked young journalists from across the country to capture the lessons of these women’s experiences — and the ways their lives have been both suppressed and enriched because of the color of their skin.
From 1942 to 1945, Clarice Freeman was the only Black student at Eastern Illinois University (formerly Eastern Illinois State Teachers College). In 1953, she married Thomas F. Freeman and the couple moved to Houston, where she made a name for herself as a prominent educator and community leader and her husband became a renowned debate coach and philosophy professor. She will celebrate her 101st birthday in August.
On Finding Purpose
“My purpose is to shine my light and to be an example for others. That’s what we’re all supposed to be. These days,I’m always the oldest around. After I’ve spoken to high school kids, somebody always comes up to me and says, ‘Ms. Freeman, when I grow up, I want to be just like you.’ I think to myself, OK, I guess I’ve accomplished what I was supposed to accomplish.”
On Early Lessons About Race
“As kids, we had no knowledge of what was going on with Blacks in America, because there was little to nothing in our textbooks about Black people — and if there was, it was that they had done something bad. I remember one lesson referred to slaves as thieves. But my grandpa taught us that they weren’t stealing anything; they were creating. They helped raise the livestock on the farms. My grandmother, who was a slave, became very good at sewing, crocheting and knitting.”
On the Fight for Equality
“After college, I joined the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE. One of my first experiences with that group was shutting down a restaurant. A group of us decided to go have dinner at this place. And of course the manager met us at the door and told us, ‘No Blacks.’ We said, ‘We’re hungry. We’re not going away until you let us in.’ The manager closed the door and locked it, not allowing any customers in, including white people. Another time, we were fundraising, and I asked a local CEO for a donation. He looked at me and said, ‘When are you people going to stop begging and support yourselves?’ I said, ‘Well, when we become CEOs just like you, when we have jobs
that pay us just like you pay your employees, maybe we will have enough money to support ourselves.’”
On Reading and Learning
“When I was a kid, there was an old apple tree in our backyard, and many of the branches hung over into the yard next door, where my best friend, Pat, lived with her grandmother. That tree became a meeting spot for us. We would climb up in the apple tree and discuss the books we read and let our imaginations run wild. We talked about what we would become when we grew up. We had a lot of grandiose ideas — we were going to be known all over the world; we were going to be very wealthy and live in mansions.” Clarice’s friend Pat is Patricia Roberts Harris, who went on to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Jimmy Carter.
On Her Nearly Seven-Decade Marriage
“One reason I was able to stay married to Tom for so long was that I didn’t depend on him to make me happy. We respected the fact that we were both educated; we felt secure because we could each make our own way. We didn’t have to depend on each other for anything really, only what we chose. We never had an argument — not once did he raise his voice to me.”
On How to Live a Long, Happy Life
“Life can slap you down sometimes. But if you take care of yourself, if you have a sense of humor, if you live a good life, if you love yourself, you’re going to be happy. And others are going to see that joy. My advice is to develop a strong spiritual life, choose your friends wisely — and love, just love.”
Interviewer Mariah Campbell is a junior journalism major at Texas Southern University who has reported on politics and culture.
Claudette Colvin, 81, was a true pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1955, when she was 15, she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white woman — nine months before Rosa Parks’s refusal in Montgomery sparked a bus boycott. As an adult, she worked as a nurse’s assistant in New York City until her retirement in 2004.
On Growing Up in the South
“I lived with relatives on a farm in the little town of Pine Level. We had horses, cows, pigs, chickens, a dog and a cat. All the big holidays were like a family reunion — my relatives would show up in big, shiny automobiles from the North. At that time we didn’t have electricity, so the little boys would take turns turning the crank on the ice cream maker. We made stew from scratch and had a barbecue pit. It was so much fun!”
On Her First Encounter with Racism
“When I was 6 years old, I was looking around with my mother in a store to get a lollipop. Suddenly all the kids were laughing, so I turned around and said, ‘What’s so funny?’ A little white boy said, ‘Let me see your hand.’ So I raised my hand, and he put his hand up against my hand. Out of nowhere, my mother, Mary, popped me on the forehead. And the boy’s mother yelled, ‘That’s right, Mary!’ When I got home, my mother explained that I was never to touch or talk to a white child.”
On Not Giving Up Her Seat on the Bus
“I was a teenager at the time, and we had been learning about Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth in school. When a white woman got on the bus and the driver told me to get up from my seat so she could sit down, I felt that those women each had a hand on my shoulders pushing me down. History had me glued to the seat. The police dragged me off the bus, handcuffed me and took me to jail. Later that day, my mother and a local pastor bailed me out, and that night after I got back home, my father sat up with a loaded shotgun by his chair. He said, ‘The KKK is not going to take you out tonight.’”
On Rosa Parks
“After I got out of jail, I lost most of my friends because their parents told them I was a troublemaker. Then I got pregnant out of wedlock and had my son Raymond. At that time, Rosa Parks was the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, and as a seamstress, she had a lot of white, affluent customers. So, she became the face of the movement, and I was ostracized by a lot of activist organizations. But I wasn’t seeking notoriety. In fact, Ms. Parks became a close friend and mentor to me after I joined the NAACP Youth Council. We have to remember that Black women may not always have all the support they need growing up. Struggles you’ve gone through have nothing to do with your capabilities as a leader. It’s a shame to miss out on so many precious minds and contributions.”
On the Lessons She Wants to Pass On
“Don’t be afraid to stand up and fight for what’s right. Get out there in the struggle. The more of us are out there, the more powerful we will be. You might not benefit from it right away, but the younger generation behind you will benefit from it.”
On What She's Most Grateful For
“I’m most grateful for raising my two boys to adulthood. I provided for them and gave them courage. I can say I have reaped some of the fruit of my labor through my grandchildren. These are the last days of my life, but God has blessed me. I don’t have money, but I have hope and faith.”
Interviewer Rachel Williams is a senior at Alabama State University majoring in political science with a minor in communications. She founded a women’s mentorship group called The Curve ASU.
More Words of Wisdom
Turn Inspiration to Action: Consider donating to the National Association of Black Journalists. You can direct your dollars to scholarships and fellowships that support the educational and professional development of aspiring young journalists. Also, support The National Caucus & Center on Black Aging, dedicated to improving the quality of life of older African-Americans, NCCBA’s educational programs arm them with the tools they need to advocate for themselves.
These stories were captured as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites around Juneteenth 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.
Listen Now: Lift Every Voice has been transformed into a powerful podcast, which records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. Head here to listen to all 16 episodes.