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Charlotte's affable prophet: Sidney L. Freeman 

The reverend helped lift our city out of its racist past

On Jan. 12, Charlotte quietly lost one of its big heroes, the Rev. Dr. Sidney L. Freeman. A longtime minster of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, Freeman was one of the leaders who helped transform our town. That his death went relatively unmarked in the larger community is another indication of our seeming disregard for history.

Sidney Freeman once described Charlotte as "segregated from cradle to grave." When he was called here in 1957 as the minister of the then-Unitarian Church of Charlotte, that's what he discovered.

A native of Madison, Wis., and bearing a Ph.D. from Cornell University, Freeman found the Charlotte of the 1950s had separate hospitals for black and white births, and separate cemeteries for black and white deaths. In between there were separate drinking fountains and rest rooms, and segregated schools, theaters, neighborhoods and, of course, churches. And do any of us need the reminder that separate was anything but equal?

Shortly after Freeman's arrival, the liberally religious church had scheduled a congregational forum with Rufus Perry, then-president of Johnson C. Smith University. Perry invited Freeman, a professor in an earlier life, to teach a course at Smith and, thereby, to integrate the school's faculty. Freeman accepted and began an adjunct relationship that would continue for decades on the campus.

Early on in his tenure as minister, Freeman read about Charles Jones and his leadership of sit-ins and boycotts in Charlotte's downtown district. At Freeman's recent memorial service, Jones related how, amidst his campaign for change, he got a call from the young white minister asking Jones to come speak to the Unitarian church. Jones accepted the invitation and soon thereafter the racial equality protests were joined by Freeman and members of his congregation.

In time, things would change as the barriers fell. Lunch counters and department stores ceased their exclusionary practices and Charlotte continued its movement toward a more open, inclusive city. An exhibit at the Levine Museum of the New South serves as a tribute to our crusading forebears, with Sidney Freeman included among them.

Later, Freeman joined with Rabbi Harold Krantzler from Temple Beth El to found our city's Interfaith Thanksgiving Service and served as its first speaker. With that, the city's fixed barrier of religious segregation was breached and Charlotte citizens slowly learned to gather across lines of difference. Freeman hosted or spoke at more of these services, a testimony to his deep commitment to his liberal religious values evidenced in his prayers that usually began with the inclusive salutation: "Dear God of all people ..."

Freeman served as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte until 1989 and as its minister emeritus until his death. He continued teaching, first at Johnson C. Smith University and then for a couple more decades in the communications department at Central Piedmont Community College, where he was an award-winning instructor. He was an advocate for mental health as well, serving as president of Charlotte's Mental Health Association.

Freeman was well-known for his soaring intellect, his insatiable curiosity, his lyrical speaking style and his deep devotion to justice and equality. Many at his memorial service remarked, however, that for all of his astounding gifts, Freeman was a remarkably humble man. The perennial twinkle in his eye, his ready laugh, his remarkable capacity to relate to each individual with dignity and his skills as a raconteur made him an affable prophet to a city now largely unaware of the debt of gratitude it owes him.

As the May vote on the proposed discriminatory constitutional amendment looms, and as we face rancorous threats to the full realization of justice and equality for our state's gay and lesbian citizens, we can take hope from the life and ministry of the Rev. Sidney Freeman. He found us a completely segregated town in 1957 and left us a much better place upon his recent death. May the future accounting of our history be able to say the same of us.

The Rev. Jay Leach is senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte.
Image credit: Be Scofield

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