Wendell Freeland: A drum major for justice

By Reggie Shuford, Executive Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Throughout history, some individuals stand out as pioneers, as leaders in the fight for equality and justice for all, as champions for those whose voices are unheard, and for righting the wrongs of society. Wendell Freeland was such a person. He was a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, a leader in the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and a change agent for the black community in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Born in 1925, Freeland, whose great-grandmother was a slave freed by her owner in 1850, grew up in racially segregated Baltimore. He was drafted in the Army in 1943 and became a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, the first African-American pilots in what was still then a segregated U.S. military.

“In the beginning of World War II, there was no thought that Negroes could fly,” Freeland said in Wendell Freeland: A Quiet Soldier, a documentary of his life. “In fact — it’s so funny, so funny. Bigots have so many ideas. They said, ‘Well they can’t fly.’ But then somebody said, ‘Well maybe they can fly, and maybe they’re like cats. They can see better at night, so maybe they can fly better at night.’ And that’s the craziest damn thing one could hear. But that’s what racism is all about — reciting crazy things that nobody in his right mind would believe.”

A black officer with the 477th Bombardment Group, Wendell was noted for taking a stand against racism in what would be regarded as one of the first steps toward the eventual integration of the armed services. Stationed at Freeman Field in Indiana, he participated in the Freeman Field mutiny as one of a group of African-American officers who attempted to enter an all-white officers’ club. Most of the officers were released, and 100 of them were arrested for disobeying wartime orders when they refused to sign a statement saying they understood they were not allowed in the white club. Freeland and the other men faced the prospect of a court martial and a death sentence, but they were released amid the bad optics of punishing these men who were challenging racial segregation.

Following the war, Freeland graduated from Howard University in 1947, where he received honors and was a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. In 1950, he received his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law, then headed for Pittsburgh, where he sued the city in the Highland Park Swimming Pool desegregation case, in which young black men who had accessed the pool were beaten — sometimes with clubs — punched and dunked by whites.

In the 1960s, Freeland was chairman of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, where he led a dialogue between the black community and the school board that paved the way for desegregation and the hiring of black teachers.

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A man who could have passed for white but would have none of it, he represented young black people who were arrested in the wake of the unrest after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He continued the struggle for civil rights as the Senior Vice President of the National Urban League, and co-founder of Hill House Association, the first social service agency in Pittsburgh to provide health, welfare, recreation and community programs to the city’s African-American community. In the 1970s, Wendell sued the police on behalf of African-American victims of police brutality, getting ahead of the curve on racial violence decades before the issue entered the public conscience with driving while black and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A member of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and later a member of the chapter’s honorary board, Freeland exemplified and upheld the organization’s commitment to civil liberties.

“History has its ebbs and flows, and where we are now is a dark time. We’ve been in other dark times in our history as a people, not just as Negroes but as American people,” Freeland said in the documentary. “The Supreme Court and some other parts of the government have made it very hard for us to make progress. But we have to keep fighting. Just file the next case, attack the next law. If we believe that we are right, we will eventually win. It’s not because we’re on God’s side as Joe Louis said in World War II, it’s because we’re on the right side.”

Wendell Freeland died in 2014. The legacy he left the city of Pittsburgh, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and those who cherish civil liberties is great, as is the debt we owe this civil rights pioneer and drum major for justice.

We are the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate, defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights through litigation, advocacy, and community education and outreach.

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