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Etta Freeman gets roses from her 1937 prom date, George Washington, on Saturday at A.C. Banks Park.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Etta Freeman gets roses from her 1937 prom date, George Washington, on Saturday at A.C. Banks Park.

Celebrating
a life of service

Ex-students help retired teacher Etta Freeman mark 90th birthday

By Deangelo McDaniel
dmcdaniel@decaturdaily.com · 340-2469

DECATUR — If you were a student in Etta Freeman’s classroom, you have a story to tell about her.

And if you are not one of her former students, you have probably heard your parents or one of your friends talk about her.

Freeman, arguably the most recognizable retired educator in Decatur, turned 90 on Friday.

More than 300 of her former students came to A.C. Banks Park on Saturday to celebrate the occasion with her. Even her 1937 prom date came to see her.

The joyous smile she brought to classrooms for 57 years as a teacher and substitute teacher is as plentiful as it always has been.

And the modest woman, who once had 67 students in a classroom, is as modest as she ever was.

“There’s really nothing about me people want to read about,” she says, matter-of-factly.

There is no shortage of people to disagree with her.

“You could write a book about her life,” said Carol Watkins, a student in Freeman’s classroom at Cherry Street Elementary in 1963.

“That’s Mrs. Freeman,” Calvin Powers said about her modesty. Powers was one of her first-grade students in 1961.

“We were crazy about her then, and we are today,” said Audrey Priest of Moulton.

Etta Bankston Freeman married Charles Henry Freeman in 1941.
Courtesy photo
Etta Bankston Freeman married Charles Henry Freeman in 1941.
Responding to her former students, Freeman said: “You can’t believe what those kids say. I taught them.”

Born the eldest of two children, Freeman and her brother, Sam Bankston, were reared by her grandparents, Sam and Emma Gray of Decatur.

Early inspiration

She graduated from Decatur Negro High School in 1937, and was inspired by Principal C.J. Hurston to attend Alabama State University in Montgomery.

“He kept telling me I had to do something,” she recalled.

To help Freeman pay for college, Hurston lied about her brother’s age so he could enter one of the local Civilian Conservation Corps camps.

“His admittance to the camp and his selfless dedication to me enabled him to send me $25 per month to ensure that I had the funds necessary to attend college,” she said.

After two years at Alabama State, she was qualified to teach and landed a job at segregated Moulton Rosenwald School. She had more than 60 students in the same class for two consecutive years.

“I didn’t have any problems,” she recalled, noting that she had a switch to take care of any discipline problems.

She boarded with Sallie Goins in Moulton and returned to her Decatur home on weekends. Her teaching pay was $50 per month. She paid Goins $4 per week.

“She did the cooking and everything,” Freeman said about Goins.

Knew racism

A child of the segregated South, Freeman experienced racism that would have broken the spirit of most people.

When she was six months pregnant and traveling home from Moulton, for example, a white bus driver requested that she give up her seat in the back to a white passenger.

“I told him I was tired, pregnant and wasn’t moving anywhere,” she said.

The white man stood. This happened more than 10 years before Rosa Parks’ stance triggered the Montgomery bus boycott.

Several years later while she was registering to vote, a white registrar tried to make her move to the back, saying he registered white voters first.

Ruth Draper, another black woman with Freeman, moved to the back of the line.

“I told him I was next in line,” she said.

Freeman refused repeated requests to move aside.

“I registered,” she said, proudly.

She married the late Charles Henry Freeman in 1941, and in 1943 gave birth to her only child, Charles Richard Freeman.

Etta Freeman was a teacher in the Decatur school system 33 years.  Teachers at segregated Cherry Street Elementary School included, front row, from left, Sarah Sheffey, Freeman, Mariette Williams, Lena Wilhite, Ella Williamson and Uzell Mosley; second row, Leola Hollins, Bessie Matthews, Eula Bridges, Leon Sheffield, Sadie Moore, Lura M. Bassham, Mary Baugh and Nettie Fowler.
Courtesy photo
Etta Freeman was a teacher in the Decatur school system 33 years. Teachers at segregated Cherry Street Elementary School included, front row, from left, Sarah Sheffey, Freeman, Mariette Williams, Lena Wilhite, Ella Williamson and Uzell Mosley; second row, Leola Hollins, Bessie Matthews, Eula Bridges, Leon Sheffield, Sadie Moore, Lura M. Bassham, Mary Baugh and Nettie Fowler.
Because her son was only 6 months old, Freeman almost didn’t get the job at Cherry Street Elementary in Decatur.

“In them days, your baby had to be 1 year old because they worried about you (breast-)feeding the child,” she explained.

With the support of Cherry Street Elementary Principal Clarence Reeves, the superintendent went against school policy and hired Freeman as a first-grade teacher.

In the 1950s, she enrolled at Alabama A&M and finished her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.

Until her retirement in 1976, Freeman taught elementary students, sometimes three generations in one family.

Earlene French Gray was a Freeman student in the 1940s.

“She took care of kids,” Gray said. “She’d wash their faces, comb hair and sewed clothes for some. She was a teacher and mother.”

Two of Gray’s daughters were in Freeman’s classroom in the 1960s.

“My sister used to call her Aunt Etta,” Michelle Gray King said. “The other students started calling her that, so my sister had to start saying Mrs. Freeman.”

District 8 state Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, met Freeman when he moved to Decatur in 1957.

“I can’t think of another person that has done so much for the community and got so little attention for her contributions,” Dukes said.

“This community needs more like her.”

Roses from prom date

George Washington was Freeman’s prom date in 1937 at Decatur Negro High. He brought her a dozen red roses on Saturday.

He doesn’t remember how he ended up as her date.

“All I know is that she was the prettiest woman in Decatur,” Washington said.

With her usual sense of humor, she turned to him, smiled and said, “I’m still pretty.”

No one disagreed.

Retirement hasn’t meant sitting on the couch or retreating to some vacation resort.

She was a substitute teacher 20 years and worked four years as a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Today, she spends her time as a volunteer at Turner-Surles Community Center and jokes about her vehicle being the community car.

“I take a lot of people to doctors’ appointments, and I never charge them anything,” she said, proudly.

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