What I Learned from Legal Pioneer Frankie Muse Freeman, Esquire  

By Nicole Colbert-Botchway

Nicole Colbert-BotchwayRecently I paid a visit to my friend, attorney Frankie Muse Freeman, at her beautiful home in the Central West End of St. Louis, Missouri. For the first time, something new caught my eye - a sheaf of sheet music propped up on the gleaming upright piano in her living room. I was immediately struck by the title of the song resting on top all the others: “If I Can Help Somebody.” This spiritual, made famous by Mahalia Jackson, includes the line “if I can help somebody, then my living shall not be in vain.” It is one of my favorites, and nothing could more perfectly sum up Mrs. Freeman - she lives her life in service to others. Mrs. Freeman has devoted her life to the work of equal justice under the law. She is a champion of civil rights, and her legacy of service is one of the many reasons she is a true legal pioneer.

Mrs. Freeman opened a law office in St Louis after graduating from Howard University in 1948. Soon after, Mrs. Freeman played a central role in a pair of landmark civil rights cases in St. Louis that successfully challenged segregation in public schools and public housing. Mrs. Freeman began her work in civil rights when she became legal counsel to the NAACP legal team that filed suit against the St. Louis Board of Education in 1949. In 1954, she was lead attorney for the landmark NAACP case Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority, which ended legal racial discrimination in public housing in St. Louis. These two cases directly impacted my parents’ lives and our North St. Louis Neighborhood.

Frankie Muse Freeman Sworn In

Mrs. Freeman is not only one of the first African American female attorneys to practice law in the state of Missouri, she was the first woman named to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. She served on the commission for 16 years — through four presidential administrations — and traveled the country during the 1960s collecting shocking first-hand accounts of racial discrimination. In 1999, Mrs. Freeman led (with William H. Danforth) a task force to oversee a landmark settlement that ended segregation in St. Louis public schools. In 2006, the pair also led an advisory committee to analyze and improve the St. Louis schools.

A Song of Faith and HopeUntil I attended high school, I did not know any attorneys and never imaged I could be one. I simply recall reading about attorney Frankie Muse Freeman along with her colleague, civil rights attorney Margaret Bush Wilson, and all the heroic things these women did to advance civil rights in the African American Community. It was not until 11 years after I graduated law school that I had the opportunity to connect with these remarkable women. In 2007, as a board member of the Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater St. Louis, I led an effort to reach out to more African American women attorneys. As part of that effort, we invited Ms. Wilson to speak at a luncheon at the Missouri History Museum. As a welcomed surprise, she brought along her friend Mrs. Freeman, whom she really wanted us to get to know. That struck me as significant - here were two female giants in the history of civil rights who, throughout their 50-year legal careers remained focused on being of service to others and supportive of women in the legal profession. We must embrace that same focus.

After that luncheon, I was fortunate to have struck up a friendship with Mrs. Freeman. What follows are just a few of the many valuable lessons I have learned from her.

Never stop serving
Like Mahalia Jackson’s moving spiritual, Mrs. Freeman truly lives her life in the service of others. She serves as a personal mentor to me and many other attorneys. She provides wonderful advice on careers, community, and family. At the age of 97, she still agrees to speak to students and community groups, all with the goal of motivating and encouraging others to advance the cause of social justice.

For attorneys, community service is part of our job description
To Mrs. Freeman, it is an integral part of our profession as attorneys that we serve the community in any way possible. Mrs. Freeman served as a critical partner for such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, the League of Women Voters, the African American/Jewish Task Force, the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri and many others.

For African American and women attorneys, this leadership and service is even more important. Our community organizations need diverse voices. “Don’t just watch others do it,” Mrs. Freeman would say, “get involved.”

Nurture your support system
Throughout her more than 60 years of legal practice, Mrs. Freeman always appreciated the loving support of her family. Her loving husband passed away years ago and her daughter, Shelbe, is a jewel. I have visited with her daughter on a few occasions and it is always a delight to see Mrs. Freeman’s eyes light up when they are together. When I introduced Mrs. Freeman to my husband and son last year, she was very excited to see that I also had a support system that truly supported and encouraged my career.

Freeman and Colbert-Botchway

Whether it is your family, friends, spouse or sorority sisters, it is important to nurture those outside relationships; they can help you fend off the burnout so many women attorneys face at some point in their careers. 

 

Have fun!
Anyone who knows Mrs. Freeman knows she has a packed social calendar. She has many friends, and she regularly gets together with members of her Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She has a very active religious life and is an elder at Washington Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church. She is an excellent pianist. She loves to cook for friends; I can attest that her chicken and shrimp dishes are fantastic. 

Like Mrs. Freeman, I encourage friends and family to join various community service efforts and to “party with a purpose.” Helping others is fun and rewarding.

I could write for days about Mrs. Freeman’s remarkable accomplishments and her incredible passion for social justice — and for life as a whole. Nevertheless, Mrs. Freeman is also a humble person. Her message for any attorney, at any stage in his or her career, continues to be “serve others, in any way you can, every day.”

Nicole Colbert-Botchway is an Assistant Attorney General and Unit Leader in the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. She is the 2014 president of the Mound City Bar Association, the oldest African American Bar Association west of the Mississippi River, founded in 1922. Nicole is also a member of the Missouri Women’s Council, a statewide organization that addresses issues affecting the economic and employment status of women in Missouri, and a member of The Missouri Bar Board of Governors.