Whether as a recruit in a segregated World War II Army camp, as a lawyer a courtroom or as a citizen marching on the streets of Downtown Pittsburgh, Wendell Freeland was a relentless fighter for racial justice.
Freeland who remained sharp and active, still doing the New York Times crossword every day before going his law office, died Jan. 23, just weeks shy of his 88th birthday.
Tim Stevens who heard the news the following morning from attorney Vic Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union said it was a great loss.
“He is one of my Civil Rights heroes,” said Stevens. “He was one of the earliest stalwarts in the Civil Rights movement. He always carried himself with dignity and grace, always a gentleman. I’m proud to have known him.”
Freeland started his first protest when he led more than 100 other Black officers into the “Whites Only” officers club at Freeman Field in Indiana. He recalled that incident during a gathering of Tuskegee Airmen in Sewickley in 2005, because his friend Mitchell Higginbotham was on of those 104, and one of the reasons Freeland moved to Pittsburgh from Baltimore a few years after the war in 1950.
“It was the first time I was arrested. I was arrested again for refusing to sign a paper acknowledging administrative rules promoting segregation. It was scary. It was potentially a court martial offense for which we could be shot,” he said.
The US Army brass in Washington, however, did not want to be seen imprisoning or executing men for trying to desegregate their facilities. So the charges were dropped and the men released.
Alma Speed Fox recalled Freeland as a thoughtful attorney, who mostly stayed out of the limelight during the Civil Rights struggles.
“He was a partner with Henry Smith—who was way out there. He later became a judge,” she said. “But Wendell was low-key and worked on the sideline, getting people out of jail, forging alliances. He worked closely with K. Leroy Irvis. He was a very sincere man.”
But he did like to talk, she said.
“Whenever we did TV shows, I would always have to tap him and say, ‘It’s my turn. They only have a few minutes left,’” she said.
His gregarious nature was recently confirmed when he was interviewed for the PNC Legacy Oral Histories project. It was scheduled for an hour, Freeland, charming as ever, spoke for three.
Arrangements are not yet finalized. Read more in Wednesday’s print edition of the Courier.