‘Just do things right’ — Retired Decatur school teacher turns 100

Jul 27, 2017

From The Decatur Daily
by Deangelo McDaniel

Etta Freeman doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t doing something to make the world a better place.

Life is a journey you take one step at a time, she said with the same soothing voice she used for more than 50 years in classrooms as a teacher and substitute.

Freeman joins one of the rarest groups in America today as she turns 100. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 0.02 percent of the population is age 100 or over.

“No secret,” she answered when questioned about the key to reaching 100. “Just do things right and treat people right.”

Freeman, who still drives but has limited her travels to First Missionary Baptist Church on Vine Street and the Turner-Surles Community Resource Center, is one of the most recognizable figures in Decatur.

Most remember her as a teacher, but there’s also her humanitarian service.

“She’s still a very compassionate person who’d rather find a reason to help than harm you,” said Decatur City Schools board member Michele Gray King.

King always called her “Aunt Etta” and was an adult before realizing they were cousins. When she was a first-grade student at Cherry Street School, King fondly remembers the rides home in “Aunt Etta’s blue and white 1955 Chevy.”

King said what’s amazing about Freeman is that she still remembers just about all the students she had in the classroom.

Sandra Coffman said one of the first questions Freeman asked when she started coming to the Turner-Surles Center is whether she was one of her former students.

“I wasn’t, but I wish I was because she’s always laughing and happy,” Coffman said.

Freeman learned about the importance of giving to others from her brother and grandparents.

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

After graduating from Decatur Negro High School in 1937, she attended what is now Alabama State University in Montgomery.

To help Freeman pay for college, her high school principal, C.J. Hurston, lied about her brother’s age so he could enter one of the local Civilian Conservation Corps camps. She said her brother’s “selfless dedication” enabled him to send her $25 per month so she could have the funds necessary to attend college.

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 fifth- and sixth-grade 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 disciplinary issues.

Freeman’s teaching pay was $50 per month, and she paid a Moulton woman $4 per week to board with her.

She married Charles Henry Freeman in 1941 and resigned her job in Moulton in 1943 after becoming pregnant with her only child, the late Charles Richard Freeman.

A child of the segregated South, Etta Freeman experienced and challenged racism.

When she was six months pregnant and traveling home from Moulton, a white bus driver requested that she give up her seat in the back to a white passenger. Freeman refused. 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 in Decatur 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,” Freeman said. Freeman refused repeated requests to move aside. “I registered,” she said, proudly.

Because her son was only six months old when she applied for a teaching job in Decatur, Freeman almost didn’t get the position. She said it was a different era and the board did not hire mothers with children less than one year of age because they worried about things such as breast feeding.

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.

After retiring, she worked 20 years as a substitute and several years as a greeter at Walmart. The grandmother of six still gets up early every morning so she can go to Turner-Surles Center, where people call her the boss.

“I guess that’s the teacher in her,” said Hattie Mae Turner, who has known Freeman since 1958.

Center Director Kellie Sims said Freeman participates in every activity and is always positive.

“She never makes an excuse and has a can-do approach,” she said.