Louis Freeman has spent his life breaking down barriers, whether intentionally or not.
Integrated High School
At his Dallas, Texas high school, Freeman was a part of the first group of Black students to be integrated into a previously all-white high school.
He quickly learned that the best way to earn respect was hard work – whether in the classroom, in ROTC, or on the tuba.
“When I got there, I felt I had something to prove, and I spent time doing that,” he said. “And right away I realized I was just as good at any of the things we were doing as they were.”
Freeman eventually became the first Black ROTC Cadet Corps Commander at the school, despite some teachers feeling white cadets wouldn’t follow him.
“They were wrong,” he said. “Not only did they follow me, but we actually got the honor star that year which was the first time in a number of years.”
Southwest Airlines’ First Black Pilot
After graduating high school and college and serving in the U.S. Air Force, Freeman became Southwest Airlines’ first Black pilot, a fact he was unaware of at the time.
Twelve years later he was the first Black chief pilot at a major U.S. airline. But the highlight of his career came when he was chosen to fly the body of Rosa Parks from her home in Detroit down to Alabama, east to D.C., and then back to Detroit for the burial.
“That was the most touching and rewarding experience of my whole airline career,” Freeman recalled. “And I got the chance to meet presidents and secretaries of state and a lot of different cabinet members. I got the chance to do a lot of things as a chief pilot but that was the highlight of my career”
Diversifying the Skies
More than 40 years after Freeman started his career, and three years after retiring, only three percent of pilots are Black – a statistic Freeman and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals are hoping to change.
“We’re working on that. Finally, after many years of trying, we’ve started our own flight school down in Olive Branch, Mississippi.”
The Lt. Col. Luke Weathers Jr. Flight Academy opened in 2018 and is named for one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen.
Freeman said they’re making progress in diversifying the flight community, but he is troubled by the lack of progress made nationwide when it comes to the way Black lives are treated.
“It’s very frustrating to see that we’re still having that same conversation that we’ve had for decades and things are not lightening up and getting better,” Freeman said. “But you have to believe in the long run that things will get better.”
As a lifelong trailblazer, Freeman has seen what can happen when a person follows their path with determination and dignity – allowing progress to take off.
Naperville News 17’s Casey Krajewski reports.
If you have a story idea or news tip you want to share, we want to hear from you!