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Freeman, city icon, dead at 96

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Freeman (The Spokesman-Review)

Throughout his life, Clarence Freeman imparted many lessons.

Be forthright, he told his three children. Keep your word and work hard. Always be proud of who you are.

“And don’t forget to shine your shoes,” he’d often tell friends and family, including the pastor of his church. “Dress like a winner.”

Looking and being sharp was important to Freeman – a Spokane native who overcame poverty and discrimination to become one of the city’s best known civic and business leaders.

“He was a survivor,” said his son, Frederic J. Freeman. “He persevered. When he set his mind to something, he got it done.”

The elder Freeman, a member of one of Spokane’s oldest black families, died in his sleep Wednesday in the living room of the home he built in 1939. He was 96 years old.

Many longtime residents of Spokane knew, or at least knew of, Clarence Freeman – real estate developer, contractor, owner of Freeman Construction Co., Spokane’s first black PTA president and organizer of Spokane’s first job fair.

He not only constructed well-known buildings here such as the Dick’s Drive-In on Third Avenue, but people also named a few in his honor. Three years ago, Wells & Co. decided to rename five historic buildings on Lincoln and Second Avenue the “Freeman Center” after learning that Clarence Freeman was born in a house next door to the property in 1910.

“He left a legacy,” said his daughter, Sandra Sinclair, the youngest of three children. “Wherever we go, we see dad’s buildings and all the things he worked hard for.”

Clarence Freeman was known for his energy, intelligence and a remarkable determination that allowed him to endure so much hardship during the early years of his life.

The son of a former slave, Freeman was born on Railroad Avenue, now the alley beside the buildings that bear his name. His first memories were of another house nearby, he told The Spokesman-Review in a 1998 interview. It was a weathered old place with an outdoor bathroom, a home so dismal that he and his six siblings called it “The Hole.”

His family was poor – no presents at Christmas, no new clothes for school. But his parents worked hard and inspired their children to do the same.

“You have got to get out there and work,” his mother often said. “You’ve got to make yourself conspicuous in the eyes of other people.”

So Clarence Freeman exerted himself, even though he could get only the most menial jobs – building banana crates, collecting coat hangers, sweeping floors at school. Nobody would hire him because of the color of his skin.

As a teenager, Clarence Freeman was hired as a bellhop at the Ridpath Hotel. He worked until midnight every day but still managed to wake up early to attend classes at Lewis and Clark High School. On Sundays, he sang tenor for the choir at Bethel AME, and it was there where he met Frances Mitchell, an alto and the woman who would become his wife and business partner.

Clarence Freeman eventually attended Gonzaga University and served as a captain in the Army during World War II.

After the war, Freeman had trouble finding a job. But a break came in 1948, when he and his wife, saved and borrowed money to become property owners. If whites wouldn’t hire him, he told the newspaper in 1998, then he had to make it on his own. Before he knew it, Freeman Construction Co. was born.

While work and civic life were important to Freeman, it was his family and friends that he loved above all, said the Rev. Lonnie Mitchell, pastor of Bethel AME.

“He was a father figure to me,” said Mitchell, who recalled how Freeman often reminded him to shine his shoes and wear a tie. “He was a family man and a man who wanted to make a difference.”

His children – Clarence Jr., Fred and Sandra – all have fond memories of their father. He was the kind of dad who pulled pranks, told jokes, and threw parties where he played music and danced with the kids. He loved to swim, play croquet and plant flowers, they recalled. He had a deep reverence for nature and the outdoors.

Freeman was also strong-willed, insisting on driving until he turned 95. “He always had a goal,” recalled Fred Freeman.

When his wife died in 1996, Clarence Freeman lost a part of himself, according to friends and family. “Where there was Frances, there was Clarence, and where there was Clarence, there was Frances,” people used to say. Life was hard without the woman he loved, his children said, but he was still able to find happiness.

“He was looking forward to seeing her again,” said Sandra Sinclair, recalling the last days of her father’s life.

Clarence Freeman is survived by his three children, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A service will be held April 1 at 1 p.m. at Heritage Funeral Home, 508 N. Government Way.