A Black Man’s Battle Circumstances Could Have Kept Clarence Freeman Down, But He Worked Hard, And Became A Successful Spokane Businessman And Community Leader
There’s an ache that comes from exclusion.
It can burrow deep in a bright child, painfully aware of all he lacks: white skin, for entering a Spokane soda fountain; shiny shoes, for the rich kids’ birthday parties; pennies, for sweet chocolates at the candy store.
But young Clarence Freeman, by 1918 already an ingenious extrovert, devised just the balm for that last affront. It was a grand scheme, too, revealing the first glimmers of his triple gifts: energy, strategic thinking, and charm.
Ol’ Kronenberg, the candy store owner, ran a candy factory on Second and Madison. Clarence lived right next door.
Clarence surveyed Kronenberg’s place one day and noticed the basement windows, outlined by brick arches, extending below ground. He could climb inside one of those windows, grab a 2-foot slab of chocolate, and return triumphant, sharing his loot with the whole neighborhood.
The only hitch in the entire scheme arrived at the very end. It was Mama. She heard about the chocolate pieces melting into the neighbor kids’ hands, and focused her snapping brown eyes on Clarence. He got the licking of his life.
The neighborhood candy supply screeched to a halt, and Clarence’s entree to the world slammed shut. But a lesson was learned, about the futility of wrong-doing, and the nature of open windows.
CLARENCE FREEMAN’S first U.S. ancestor arrived in North Carolina on a slave ship in 1790. His American roots run deep, his ethnic heritage African, English and Cherokee.
But the ancestor who shines in Freeman’s collective family history was Grandpa Bass, a black man with so much drive and business sense that not even slavery could restrain him. Obadiah Bass sold liquor and cotton for an owner so grateful that he shared the profits. Grandpa Bass saved until he’d bought his own freedom and that of his wife and his 10 children.
Alice Bass, his youngest daughter, was born free. She grew up in a middle-class Southern family.
After she moved to Spokane, she married William Freeman. Freeman was also from Durham, N.C., but not from a family of means. Born a slave, William Freeman remained illiterate all his life.
William Freeman worked in the coal mines in Roslyn, Wash., contracting a lung disease that plagued him later. He worked as a stonemason and then on the hot gang, the asphalt crew for the city of Spokane. He’d often drink his way through his meager paycheck before he stumbled home. The Freemans had seven children, six boys and one girl, left largely to Alice to raise.
Clarence was born on Railroad Avenue, now the alley beside the Display House on Lincoln.
But his first memories are of a battered house on a recessed lot his family called “The Hole.” It was at Third and Jefferson. The bathroom was outside, and to get to the house, the family walked down a flight of stairs from the sidewalk.
There Mama reigned, strict but loving, her brown eyes usually twinkling with the same sparkle Grandpa Bass had, the one Clarence inherited, equal parts energy and humor.
She dispensed black-eyed peas and ham, sweet potato cobbler and yam pies. Folks showed up after church for her fine dinners.
The days of Clarence’s childhood followed a strict routine: up early to make his bed and clean up before breakfast, then off to nearby Hawthorne School, where poor kids from downtown and Peaceful Valley sat in neat rows next to the rich kids from the South Hill. There were Germans, Jews, Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Negroes, Norwegians, Swedes and Irish kids.
Afterward, there might be time for a rock fight with the gang or a quick game of softball down by the railroad tracks, with one of Mama’s stockings, stuffed and sewn tight, serving as the ball.
Then came dinner, and time for Mama go to work at the Auditorium Theater. The kids did homework and slid into bed by 9, with Mama slipping home by 11:30 p.m.
“You can do better if you try,” Alice would admonish Clarence. “You have got to get out there and work. You’ve got to make yourself conspicuous in the eyes of other people.”
Work he did. Work at any crummy little job that came along. Clarence asked about a job delivering the Spokane Chronicle. The route manager shook his head. Clarence was “colored,” he said.
Instead, Clarence built banana crates for a downtown produce company, 50 of them for a dollar a day. He always took the dollar straight home to Mama.
He collected coat hangers to sell to Crescent Cleaners. He cleaned erasers and swept floors at school for 50 cents a week.
School came easy. Clarence loved English and art.
“Even though I didn’t have any money or fancy clothes, I had a brain, and they couldn’t beat me on that one,” he says.
It was the rest of life that was hard. Christmastime was the worst. No presents under the church tree for the Freeman children; no crisp new clothes to wear to school afterward.
Clarence developed a philosophy: “You accept it for what it is, do the darn best you can, and keep on moving.”
Alice Freeman made friends with May Arkwright Hutton, Spokane’s millionaire suffragette, and Ralph and Helen Foley, Tom Foley’s parents. She served at Patsy Clark’s banquets.
There were places the Freemans could not go: the Davenport Hotel, most restaurants, the swimming pool at Natatorium Park. They went elsewhere. The lunch counter at Woolworth’s. The YWCA. The city parks.
Finally, at age 11, Clarence took his first real job, as a pageboy at the Liberty Theater. He wore a fancy brown suit with three rows of shiny gold buttons, and a natty bell captain’s hat. He looked sharp.
He may not have been standing on the inside. But, now, at last, he was the one opening the door.
BY THE TIME Clarence was 14, he had edged his way into a bellman’s job at the Ridpath Hotel. He told the boss he was 16.
The Ridpath was a dump then, home to bootleggers, pimps and prostitutes. Clarence grew up quick.
Life became an exhausting whirl of school and work. He bellhopped at the Ridpath until midnight and napped in the Lewis and Clark study hall the next day.
Weekends were filled with work and Sunday School. He learned to survive on four hours of sleep.
Black friends shrugged off these hours with an aphorism: “While the black folks are a sleepin’ and a dreamin’, the white folks are a plannin’ and a schemin.”’ You had to stay awake to get ahead.
Clarence Freeman has kept his eyes open ever since.
They were wide open the day he slid his nickel and dime tips across the bank counter only to spot an LC classmate working as a teller, a job strictly closed to Clarence. Same thing at the grocery stores, and supply houses. Suddenly, businesses that wouldn’t even accept Clarence’s application were scooping up his white classmates.
The deep unfairness of this system crashed into his consciousness. Exhausted from too little sleep and too many late nights dragging white people’s bags from floor to floor, Clarence’s grades plummeted. He was sent to “the bonehead school,” an early alternative for slow learners.
Clarence remained a year and a half in “the bonehead” - even teachers called it that. He pulled his grades up, and returned to the LC honor roll.
In the meantime, the Ridpath manager gradually cleaned up the place. It soon became a fine hotel, second only to the Davenport.
At the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Clarence sang tenor in the choir. A beautiful alto, Frances Mitchell, caught his eye.
Freeman graduated from LC with honors and headed for Gonzaga University - a premed major. He’d always admired his mother’s physician.
There were days when Freeman couldn’t afford a nickel for the streetcar. So he walked, from his mother’s house near the present-day Indian Canyon Golf Course clear over to Gonzaga for classes and then downtown for the night shift at the Ridpath.
During those years, an ancient black pastor would sometimes catch up to Freeman as he walked East Fifth Avenue.
“Just buy ‘em, these empty lots, Clarence,” he’d say, waving his arms. “They’re going to be worth a lot someday.”
One day Freeman ran into his friend, Carl Maxey, who was washing windows downtown.
“One day we’ll do better than this, right, Carl?” asked Freeman, the bellman. “You’re darned right, Clarence,” answered Maxey, the future attorney.
Finally, after three years, Freeman quit school, his money and energy spent.
The work at the Ridpath continued, and Freeman saved to buy two lots near his mother’s house for $10. He built a small house there and, at 29, asked Frances to marry him. She was 24, with intelligence, compassion and energy to match his own. Their wedding was packed.
Freeman was promoted, after 10 years at the Ridpath, to the position of assistant desk clerk. Someone complained. It didn’t look right for a black man to work the front desk.
Job hunting, Freeman heard the same lines all over town: At Washington Water Power. The post office. The banks.
“Every time they’d give me a barrier, I’d talk to Mama and my wife,” Freeman says. “My mama and Frances gave me encouragement every step of the way.”
Finally, World War II began. War might have meant terror for some American men. For Freeman it meant opportunity.
He headed out to Geiger Field for testing. His sharp mind didn’t fail him. He earned one of the top scores ever.
Soon he was on his way to officer training school. It would be the U.S. Army that would give Freeman his first chance to advance solely on his merits.
AS FREEMAN RODE the train to Georgia, a white woman sank into the seat next to him. Misjudging his tan complexion, she turned and griped, “You know what happened to me, soldier? I had to give up my seat to the niggers.”
Suddenly, Freeman knew he was south of the Mason-Dixon line. The “colored” restrooms were filthy. The butcher hollered at him: “Back of the line.”
When Frances arrived, she hated traipsing to the back of the bus. Clarence immediately bought a car.
Freeman had been assigned to the infantry. But at Fort Benning, he struck up a friendship with the commanding officer of a black quartermaster battalion, and soon he switched over.
In Europe, Freeman worked hard, earned promotions. He was a truck commander.
His battalion landed at Marseille, then traveled into Belgium and Germany to deliver supplies.
Two memories burn: handing out candy to young soldiers marching up to face death, and watching a man’s leg shoot into the air. Land mines.
He sent all but $25 of each paycheck home and traded his cigarette rations for perfume for Frances.
One day in 1944, a soldier arrived in a jeep with new orders. Freeman, now in his mid-30s, was transferred to an all-white battalion in Belgium as a first lieutenant.
The first night there, Freeman sat uncertainly at a dinner table for second lieutenants and warrant officers.
The next night, the white commander set him straight. In this battalion, the officers sat by rank. That placed Freeman two seats from the commander.
He joined the head table that night and effectively stopped any buzzing about Clarence Freeman, one of the few black Army officers in a white battalion.
Off-duty, Freeman joined a white officer from Chicago to tour the chateaux and talk about music, food, and art.
Freeman was promoted to acting company commander.
The war ended. Freeman was not euphoric. He had just made captain and he was displaced.
Suddenly, Freeman was back in Spokane, facing the same pool of menial jobs and watching his former classmates stream into banks and insurance companies.
“What bothers you is to see other guys get the opportunities. You’re passed right by and you know you’re as smart as they are,” he says.
He took a job as a redcap for Northern Pacific Railway. It was a comedown. But Freeman banked his tips, adding the money to his Army pay.
Around 1948 Clarence and Frances saved and borrowed to buy the Merlin Apartments at 29 W. Second. Like players on a Monopoly board eying Baltic and Mediterranean, they saw potential.
The place was a mess. But they cleaned and renovated, and soon they were renting reputable apartments to the black military families who couldn’t rent anywhere else.
They bought more property. Added more tenants. Freeman had helped with a renovation at the Ridpath years earlier. He dove in.
If no one in Spokane would offer Freeman a respectable job, he would create one himself. Suddenly it began to dawn on him: Why wait for a white man to open the doors? Together, he and Frances could yank them open themselves.
BY THE 1950s, the fine military tenants disappeared. One of the Freemans’ apartment houses stood nearly empty. Only bums were renting rooms.
Clarence was losing money fast. He had to tear down that apartment building.
He didn’t know squat about demolition. But he pulled together a crew, and they tore down the building. A business owner driving by was so impressed, he hired Freeman for another demolition job.
Soon Freeman Construction Co. was born. And Clarence Freeman walked into the world as a real estate developer and contractor.
Freeman built a drive-in for Dick’s Hamburgers on a piece of property he owned on Third.
He found the best construction superintendent available and built a warehouse at 323 S. Sherman. He built commercial buildings and apartments.
A few people refused to sell to him, but a number of bankers and business people supported him.
“Thank goodness the good people outnumber the bad people,” Freeman says. “That’s how Frances and I made it. The good people showed up.”
Six lots he’d bought in his neighborhood for $125 eventually sold for $17,000.
His children were growing. In 1954 he was elected the city’s first black PTA president at Whittier School.
In 1968 he was elected president of the Kiwanis Club of West Spokane. He started holding the door open from the inside.
That year he and Frances organized the city’s first Job Fair. They also campaigned for improvements to Liberty Park.
His old friend Jim Chase, an usher at the Freemans’ wedding, became mayor in 1981. Frances, a former garden club director, was appointed to the Park Board.
Their own children, raised with the familiar strict but loving Southern rules, made them proud.
Clarence Jr. worked after school at Seafirst - a sweet victory his dad savored - and became a dentist. Fred became a financial adviser in Florida; Sandra, a former Lilac princess, an office administrator for Boeing.
Clarence served on the Sports, Entertainment, Arts and Culture Advisory Board. He helped study the prospect of tearing down the old Coliseum. He served on the boards of the YWCA and Goodwill.
In the mid ‘70s, he and Alvin J. Wolff built a restaurant for a company called Saisons. The restaurant partners failed, but today Freeman and Wolff’s son Fritz still own the building. It now holds the Journal of Business and offices for Spokane Mental Health.
Frances died at age 81 just before the ice storm in November 1996. After the funeral, after all of his friends and family had left, Clarence drove home over a concrete bridge. For an instant, the thought slashed his brain: Just how fast would a man have to drive to crash clear through that concrete and into the river?
The thought dissipated. It returned, briefly, the next day. But it has never returned.
Freeman underwent surgery this last year and then his brother, Bob, a well-loved minister and civil rights activist in Billings, Mont., died.
“It’s been a rotten year,” Freeman says. “But you can’t go around with thoughts like that in your head.”
Instead, he calls friends from the home he shared with Frances. During the past 80 years, Freeman moved from “The Hole,” to the house with the pool. On the coffee table stand twin statues from local black organizations - a 1995 Links African-American Pioneer Award for Frances and a 1997 African-American Forum Award for Clarence.
He still loves candy. He pours gold-wrapped toffees into gold and silver candy dishes. He sets out M & Ms, Snickers and red and black licorice. On an end table sits a box of See’s chocolates.
He won’t tell his age. He might need a job someday, he jokes, or maybe he’ll want to leap at a new business opportunity. People won’t take him seriously if they think he’s too old, he says.
Freeman serves on the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation board and plots ways raise to $30,000 for a new kitchen for the young people at Bethel AME. When he zips through town to check on his property, he wears a bright yellow sailor’s hat and passes out peppermint drops.
“It’s easy to look back and say, ‘I could have,”’ he says. “It’s better to look back and say, ‘I did!”’
This Christmas, he roared over to Seattle, driving 75 miles an hour all the way, to see his kids.
After the holiday, Clarence Freeman arrived home, a 7-year-old’s sparkle in his eyes and a half-gallon of chocolate-covered peanuts tucked under his arm.
In his mind he held new schemes, visions of all those doors and windows waiting to be flung open in the new year.
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