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Celebrating Community Project Sculptures

Todd Hayes, of Sioux City, takes a selfie with his aunt Evelyn Freeman, the first African-American teacher in Sioux City, by a bronze sculpture bearing her likeness at Martin Luther King Jr. Transportation Center. Freeman, a former Lincoln Elementary School teacher, was one of the five individuals honored with Celebrating Community Project sculptures that recognize community equality advocates.

SIOUX CITY -- When Evelyn (Walker) Freeman walked into her Lincoln Elementary School third grade classroom in 1955, she knew how significant it was being the first African-American teacher ever to be hired by the Sioux City School District.

But to her students, she was simply Mrs. Freeman.

"Children don't care what color you are," she said, reflecting upon the six years spent at the north side school. "I may have been the first black person my students knew and it didn't make any difference to them."

Now 93 and living in Los Angeles, Freeman returned to Sioux City as one of the five individuals honored with a Celebrating Community Project sculpture at the Martin Luther King Jr. Transportation Center on Oct. 4.

Since 2015, the Rudy and Flora Lee Celebrating Community Project has honored community equality advocates with bronze sculptures designed and built by North Sioux City-based artist Mark Avery.

This year's honorees were Susan LaFlesche Picotte, chosen for her work with Native Americans; Mike Woods for his work with homeless Americans; Marilyn Murphy for work as an advocate for women; Rhoda Tenuta for her work with domestic violence survivors; and Freeman for a lifetime spent in education.

Parents encouraged Freeman to pursue education

Born in Sioux City to a dad who worked in packinghouses and a mother who worked as a domestic, Freeman loved to play the piano and wanted to someday become a music teacher.

"My parents worked hard to send me to college," she said. "It was their dream and it was mine as well."

Freeman was one of only eight African-American students to graduate at Sioux City Central High School's Class of 1943.

"I can still name the African-American students who graduated in my class," she said. "That's how tiny Sioux City's African-American population was at the time."

In addition, Freeman was the only African-American to graduate from Morningside College's Class of 1947.

"I loved going to Morningside because I got to ride the streetcars every day," she said. "I lived on the west side and took the streetcar to the other side of town. That was fun."

Society centered around family and church

However, times were hardly idyllic in Sioux City for Freeman.

Since they represented such a small part of the city's population, African-Americans tended to stick together.

"Our lives revolved around family and the church," Freeman said. "That was our culture."

Meeting the love of her life

This was certainly true when Freeman met and married Lawrence "Doc" Freeman, who also wanted to pursue a career in education.

"Even though Lawrence was a few years older than me, he graduated from Morningside in 1948 because he also served in World War II," she said.

Lawrence Freeman's military experience in both World War II and the Korean War shaped his entire life.

"I was comfortable among white people and black people," Evelyn Freeman said. "Lawrence was more of an activist than I ever was."

Surviving in a segregated Sioux City

While Freeman found work as a music teacher for a private school in downtown Sioux City, her husband struggled to land a job in education.

"Lawrence ran a bowling alley, worked construction and did anything he could to make ends meet," she said. 

Freeman admitted racism played a primary role.

"Sioux City wasn't as bad as down south but there were certain places black people couldn't go," she said.

The night Lionel Hampton stopped by for a bath

Such places included municipal swimming pools as well as certain hotels.

"When Nat King Cole played the Orpheum, we met both Nat and his wife who was, then, pregnant with Natalie," Freeman said. "When (jazz musician) Lionel Hampton came to town, he was denied proper accommodation and actually had to take a bath at our house."

Some African-Americans were even denied employment because of their skin tone.

"Back in the 1950s, (department stores) would hire black girls as elevator operators," Freeman said, shaking her head at the memory. "Only, they made sure to hire black girls with light complexions."

When Lawrence Freeman heard that the Sioux City School District had an opening for an elementary school teacher, he knew his wife was perfect for the job.

"I had gotten my teaching credentials from Briar Cliff College (now Briar Cliff University) applied for the Lincoln Elementary School job," Freeman said. "If I hadn't gotten the job, Lawrence said he'd get the NAACP to protest and he meant it."

So, why was Freeman accepted as a teacher in Sioux City while her husband was not?

"Back then, a black lady teacher wasn't intimidating but a black male teacher was intimidating," she said. "That's how things were back then."

Heading out west

While his wife was teaching in Sioux City, Lawrence Freeman contemplated a move out west.

"Lawrence moved to California and secured a job as a high school teacher," Freeman said. "I quit my job, moved out west and brought our daughters Vikki, Cheryl and Rochelle, whom we call Rocky."

"We settled in Compton, California," she said with a mischievous grin. "Ever heard of the place? That's the hometown of Venus and Serena (Williams) as well as me."

For more 30 years, Lawrence "Doc" Freeman became a beloved and innovative teacher and principal in the Compton School District while his wife became a traveling music teacher.

"In Sioux City, my classroom consisted of nothing but white children," Freeman said. "In Compton, the majority of my students have been black. That's fine since music benefits everybody of any skin color."

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Evelyn Freeman's third grade class

The first African-American teacher in Sioux City, Evelyn Freeman taught at Lincoln Elementary School from 1955 to 1962.

Reflections on a life well-spent

It's been more than four years since her husband passed away at age 92.

"Lawrence was such a good man," Freeman said. "He wanted me to become the first African-America teacher in Sioux City and, essentially, launched a campaign to make it happen."

Still feisty and very funny, Freeman said is proud of everything she and her family have accomplished.

Returning to Sioux City for the dedication of her bronze statue, Freeman acknowledged that the community has drastically changed over the years.

There are no more streetcars shuttling students across town nor are there any city swimming pools that discriminate against African-Americans.

Even Lincoln Elementary -- the school in which Freeman began her career -- is gone. It closed for the last time in 2016 when the new Perry Creek Elementary School replaced it.

Despite the changes, Freeman feels at home, even after all these years.

Sioux City is where she met her husband and where her children were born. It was also where her parents encouraged her to dream big and never give up.

"I've lived a very good life," she said softly. "That's what we all wish for."

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