Photo By Perry Morgan/ASU Studen
Immediately after the commencement ceremony, many undergraduates begin planning their career options. Once the degree is handed and the stage is crossed, most graduates will begin their paths toward professional success.
For some, interestingly enough, that path eventually leads back to Alabama State University as they pursue a graduate degree or to join the faculty or staff.
For alumna Alma S. Freeman, Ed.D., the path has continuously led back to the Hornets’ Nest for over six decades, from valedictorian to the dean of University College, and much more. Every move that she has made was done with O’ Mother Dear in mind. Proud of her integral role in the university’s maturation over the decades, Freeman now lives in retirement with a full heart and lively spirit.
“I have always enjoyed what I did because I am a devout Alabama State fan,” she said. “All of my life has been about Alabama State College and Alabama State University.”
Freeman originates from the rural town of Lafayette, Alabama, which is a small town in Chambers County. As the only girl out of the four children born to her parents, Margaret Driver Freeman and Eugene Marcellus Freeman, she was forced to find ways to occupy herself. It was this need for a pastime that would lead her to her truest passion.
“I was an only girl, so I had to learn how to entertain myself with stuff brothers do not like to be bothered with,” she said. “So I read a lot and started writing poetry – that kind of stuff.”
Considering her mother worked as a schoolteacher, Freeman was introduced to many scholarly texts at a young age. From reading The Negro Caravan: Writings by American Negroes, she had access to the work of many notable figures of Black history such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and more.
Her love for literature eventually led to her childhood aspirations of becoming a schoolteacher. Since her mother, along with many other women in her community, were schoolteachers, she grew up watching them lead their classrooms throughout the school year. Then, she would watch them travel to Alabama State University for summer classes as they pursued their degrees in education. Because of this pattern, Freeman closely associated the profession with the characteristics of strength and poise and knew that it was the perfect fit for her.
“A lot of women in the neighborhood were teachers, and they would get in their cars and drive to ASU or Tuskegee Institute, at the time, for school,” she said. “In the summertime they would either leave early Monday morning or late Sunday afternoon to go to college. And they did this for years … Because my mother was a teacher, and the Black women in my school and neighborhood were teachers, I just always wanted to be a teacher myself.”
Freeman attended Chambers County Training School during her grade school years. With Lafayette, Alabama, being plagued by segregation, Chambers County Training School was designated for African Americans of all ages, offering classes from kindergarten through 12th grade. She was very involved as a high school student by participating in spelling bees, oratorical contests, and most fondly, the dramatic guild. Freeman established a reputation for all-around excellence.
Upon her high school graduation in 1959, she considered many institutions for her higher education studies. Though interested in Clark University and Tuskegee Institute, her mother insisted that she attend Alabama State College, following her legacy. While Alabama State College was not her first choice, she complied as she knew that she would then have the opportunity to watch the American Civil Rights Movement unfold.
“[My mother] said, ‘I do not know why you are going through all of that, because you are going to Alabama State,’” Freeman said. “And I said, ‘OK,’ and that is exactly what I did.”
She continues, “When I got there in 1959, the Civil Rights Movement had just gotten kicked off right here in Montgomery at Alabama State. Martin Luther King Jr. was at Dexter Avenue, so I was excited.”
In the fall of 1959, Freeman enrolled as a freshman and began her long-running affiliation with Hornet Nation. She decided to pursue a degree in English, with a concentration in library education, as she continued to hold dreams of becoming a schoolteacher.
As a college student, she continued her work with the dramatic guild, developing a love for the arts. She also participated in the library club, as it aligned with her studies in library education, and pledged Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 1960. While she was well involved in extracurriculars on campus, the true excitement resided downtown. Only a few blocks away from the most pivotal moment in African American history, Freeman watched the events of the movement from her residence, Bibb Graves Hall, which is now named Jo Ann Robinson Hall.
“We had an uprising on campus,” she said in remembrance of the on-campus aftermath of the county courthouse sit-in. “I mean, students were marching and protesting with signs and everything. And my mama called me and told me to keep my butt in my dormitory!”
Though it was such an invigorating experience to witness, Freeman and many of her classmates did not understand the impact that their efforts would leave on the world. Considering the university was a very race-conscious campus, involvement with the movement was no more of a big deal than attending class. Little did these students know that they would shape the future for many generations of African Americans to come.
Considering her time of enrollment, Freeman was taught by many of the American Civil Rights greats who were also university professors. She most fondly remembers her time being taught by John Garrick Hardy, Ph.D., her freshman dean, Maggie Daniels, an English professor, and Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor who is most commonly credited for kick-starting the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and ultimately the American Civil Rights Movement. Truly enamored by their intelligence, Freeman considers their bravery to be an embellishment of their character.
“At the time, they were very impressive teachers, but I had no idea what they had done with the bus boycott. I did not learn that until later because the next year, they were all gone.”
In 1963, Freeman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in library education. Her academic distinction granted her the title of valedictorian, a role that would allow her direct access to Levi Watkins, Sr., DHL, the sixth president of Alabama State University. After delivering the valedictory speech at the commencement ceremony, Watkins asked Freeman to meet with him to discuss her future. The next day, the two met in his office. He offered her a job as a professor in the English department as long as she continued her education at the graduate level, encouraging her to attain a master’s degree. Though she did not go straight into her graduate studies, she began her career with Watkins’ words in mind.
With her new degree, Freeman began teaching high school English at her alma mater, Chambers County Training School. Considering the school was familiar territory, she remembers the transition from student to teacher to be seamless. Throughout her three years in the position, Freeman received great feedback as she brought a fresh perspective to the historical school by encouraging student interaction and collaborative work. She also maximized comprehension and critical thinking skills.
“I learned that the best thing that you can do as a teacher, and the most effective thing that you can do as a teacher, is to make sure that students are engaged and involved.”
While demonstrating her great teaching skills throughout the school year, Freeman also worked in Watkins’ office (in Montgomery), doing minor administrative assistant work during the summer months. This position allowed her the opportunity to work closely and build a relationship with Watkins. Along with such an alliance came many professional and academic advancement opportunities, such as her introduction to The Ohio State University, commonly Ohio State or OSU, a public land-grant research university in Columbus, Ohio.
During the summer of 1966, Freeman attended an education seminar at The Ohio State University. From this experience, she was able to meet the faculty, get familiar with the campus, and experience life beyond the restraints of Alabama. It was this summer seminar that catalyzed her graduate education. To fulfill Watkins’ wish, she explored graduate programs of various universities but was troubled considering that the major universities of her home state were still segregated. Due to the racial divide of the south, and her pleasant experience the summer before, Freeman enrolled at The Ohio State University during the fall of 1967.
She recounts her graduate experience at OSU to be quite similar to her time as an undergraduate at ASU. Though the school was integrated at the time, there were still systematic and social restraints placed between the races. She remembers being boarded in a small single room with a communal bathroom, as opposed to her classmates who were lodged in suites, because she could only room with another African American to be granted a suite, and there were no others.
“These schools would accept you as a student, but that racism would still be there,” she said.
While it brought some discomfort, she refused to let the environment hinder her mission. In 1968, Freeman received her master’s degree in English and then returned to the Hornet’s Nest as an English instructor for the underclassmen of the university. Just as Watkins had planned, Freeman brought a new standard to the English department as she partnered her innate passion for literature with the formal education that came with her advanced degree. Most notably, as she worked with the underclassmen, she was able to lay the foundation not only for younger students but also for the university’s future.
“We wanted them to have goals and to be successful in achieving them,” she said. “We wanted them to have some direction.”
After three years of teaching at ASU, she decided to pursue her education doctorate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. With the encouragement of Watkins, Freeman received a fellowship to work and learn under Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Ed.D., who had previously been president of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, and now has an institute, within Rutgers University, in his honor. With Proctor being a well-recognized and celebrated Black man at such a highly esteemed predominantly white school, Freeman found great inspiration from his leadership.
“From my experience at Rutgers, I just came to realize that I could be what I wanted to be,” she said. “I learned that I do not have to ascribe to these roles that people try to lock me into.”
While at Rutgers, she was also able to research under Nancy T. Bazin, Ph.D., a professor of literature and women’s studies. During the era where feminism was on the rise, Bazin was a devout advocate of the cause and worked to instill that into her students. By studying the role of women in literature under her professor, Freeman found solace in feminist ideals and practices. It was the new interest and great leadership that inspired her dissertation, “The Androgynus Ideal: A Study of Selected Novels by D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf.”
“I learned a lot about being female,” she said. “You have, as a woman, just as much of a right to do, to be, to achieve, and to accomplish as men do. So I became a feminist myself!”
As a doctorate student, she also worked as a research assistant and instructional assistant to those who she studied under. In 1974, this research and work experience not only granted Freeman her doctorate in English and humanities but also a sense of self that would carry her throughout her long-running career.
During the fall of 1974, she returned to Alabama State University as the director of freshman English and humanities programs. In this position, she was responsible for developing the curriculum for the core courses required by freshmen. Again having a direct relationship with the youngest students on campus, Freeman took the opportunity to set the tone for their academic career. In 1978, she was then promoted to the chairperson of the department of basic studies, and then again in 1981 as the chairperson of the department of humanities. It was October of 1984 when she was entrusted with the duties and responsibilities as dean of University College, a position that she held for 13 years.
Introduced under the Watkins administration, University College serves as a bridge between the high school curriculum and college-level courses. In its early years, the college offered developmental programs which prepared students who were troubled academically for the more advanced courses that would come within their major programs. By providing extra opportunities for academic success, Freeman provided support to students who needed that extra push.
“We had, and probably still do have, a lot of students who come from rural backgrounds, so when they get to college, they are lacking a lot of skills that they will need to succeed in their major,” she said. “So our job was to make sure that they were ready for success in their major.”
Throughout her tenure, the college grew in the number of courses offered, guidance given, and students helped. While it began with a focus on reading and mathematics, it eventually expanded to world history, various social sciences, and STEM subjects. Due to Freeman’s work within University College, the academic culture of the campus shifted. Setting students of all backgrounds in the best possible position for success, the university saw a dramatic increase in student grade-point averages and test scores.
“We took care of students who needed help and serious attention in their skill development so that they could succeed in college,” she said. “They had a support system. If they needed certain skills, or more work in certain skills then we had the courses that they could take and extra work that they could do in the labs. Then our advisement center would direct them on where to go to hone those skills.”
The mission of University College also extended to students who already established a strong start to their collegiate careers. Through the W.E.B. DuBois Honors Program and other programs, promising students were polished. Considering they already had a hold on their academic preparation, these programs allowed them to be molded professionally as they prepared for life beyond the university. Knowing the influence that the faculty had on her maturation, Freeman took pride in offering the same services to many students who passed through University College.
In 1997, after devoting 30 years of leadership to Alabama State University, she officially retired from her position as dean of University College, chairwoman of the Student Media Board, and as an influential member of the university. Throughout her retirement, Freeman has maintained an active role in Hornet happenings. As needed, she has served as an adjunct professor, interim dean of the College of Education on multiple occasions, facilitator for the SACS accreditation, volunteer presenter for the university’s National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture for two decades, and much more. The respect between the university and Freeman proves to be reciprocated as she has received a number of university recognitions, including serving as a plaintiff for the Knight vs. State of Alabama lawsuit, the Tullibody Award and keynote speaker for Founders’ Day.
As of 2021, Freeman has been an affiliate of the university for 62 years. As the decades were filled with many highs and lows, she insists that every bump in the road was merely a test of her intelligence and dedication to the university.
“You confront a challenge, and you have a sense of accomplishment, a sense of achievement, of worth in doing it,” she said. “Organizing University College was a challenge, but I cannot say that we had any obstacles because with whatever we tried to do, we got support, and we were successful.”
She reassures that each challenge, or test of intelligence, was well worth the fight as they all were resolved in the students’ best interest. As many students, who have passed through her program, have come back to share their appreciation, Freeman considers her work to have been well fulfilled.
“I do not remember all [of the stories and conversations], but they do, and that makes me feel like I impacted their life in a positive way,” she said. “I get [thanks] a lot, and it makes me feel like my life and work has been of worth.”
As she remained in a position of power for so long, she credits her decades of success to her ability to work with others and the humility that allowed for that collaboration. Knowing that the work of University College could not be done alone, she appreciates every individual who aided in that success.
“You have got to know how to treat people, how to work harmoniously with others while achieving goals,” Freeman said. “Otherwise, you cannot be successful because you cannot do it without others … You have got to have strength in your personality, strength in your talents, and strength in your activities. You have got to be strong, but with that, you have to have humility. You cannot walk around acting like you are the only human on the face of the earth!”
While her impact on the university is palpable, she believes that Alabama State University left an even larger impact on her life. As many instructors and administrators of the university encouraged her academic pursuits and professional development, she knows that all of her work would not have been possible without the foundation set by Alabama State University.
“Alabama State shaped me as a professional, as an educator, and as a person,” she said. “I think that over time I have been able to give back because of what it contributed to my development.”
Outside of her work within the university, Freeman has made herself a force within the realm of consultant work, holding seminars and workshops, reviewing proposals, publishing articles and much more. Her most notable role within the community, excluding ASU affiliation, is her service as the interim president of Trenholm State Technical College. She supervised the merger of Trenholm State Technical College with Patterson State Technical College. This activity has established her not only as a notable figure of ASU but also of the Black community, Montgomery community, and the literary and humanitarian scholars’ community. As she refuses to be placed in one box, she makes sure to play her part in multiple.
In her personal life, Freeman is the mother of James Michael Haskins, who currently works within the U. S. Department of Labor. For 18 years, she has been married to Olin L. Wesley, who served as the director of Continuing Education at ASU.
In her free time, she has continued her childhood love for writing. While she has done some poetry, her latest project pertains to Alabama State University history. For years she has conducted research and is currently writing a book recounting the university’s involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement.
“The Civil Rights Movement was kicked off right on that campus with the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she said. “That is where the whole national movement began, but we do not get the credit for that.”
The book, which remains unnamed, is set to be finished by the spring of 2022, was inspired by her decades of work as a volunteer with the National Center for the Study of Civil Rights and African American Culture. While the project initially began as a documentary, Freeman decided to print her findings and eventually incorporate them with the curriculum of the freshman orientation course.
“I do not know what I am going to do with it or how it will work out, but if I live long enough, I will figure it out,” she said.
She is affiliated with a number of organizations and associations. She is a member of the National Council of Teachers and English, Modern Language Association, National Association for Developmental Education and many more. Additionally, though the pandemic has forced her into inactivity, Freeman also served as the chapter president of the Montgomery Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. from 1989 to 1991.
Considering she has spent many decades guiding the paths of her students, even in retirement, she offers advice to the students of Hornet Nation. While times have changed throughout those 62 years, Freeman ensures that her advice to work hard will never become obsolete.
“Do it while you are young and have the energy, interest, and opportunity,” she said. “Plan your trajectory, put your goals out there, and work hard to accomplish it.”
With this advice coming from a woman who grew up in the segregated south, who witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, obtained three degrees, provided resources for hundreds of students, and more, it is as good as gold.