AACHM Oral History: Tessie Freeman
Sun, 09/28/2014 - 2:30pm
When: February 4, 2014
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Tessie Ola Freeman was born June 19, 1924 in Alabama and has lived in Washtenaw County since 1947. An avid lover of poetry and spectator sports, Ms. Freeman raised three children while doing domestic work and dressing hair to supplement her family’s income. Ms. Freeman is proud of her children and encouraged them to get an education, even going so far as to enroll at Wayne State University at the same time her youngest son. Ms. Freeman has always spoken for herself and she’s proud to share her story.
- [00:00:38.68] INTERVIEWER: OK I'm going to first ask you some, what we call demographic questions, like your name and address and stuff like that. And maybe that'll be able to jog your memory so when we go on to get your actual story. OK can you please say and spell your name for me?
- [00:01:01.04] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: My name is Tessie Ola Freeman. T-E-S-S-I-E O-L-A F-R-E-E-M-A-N.
- [00:01:20.28] INTERVIEWER: What is the date of your birth including the year?
- [00:01:23.92] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I was born June the 19th, 1924. I'm 89 years old.
- [00:01:32.72] INTERVIEWER: All right. How would you describe your ethnic background?
- [00:01:42.16] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well, I'm proud to be an American, and I'm proud to be an African person. My background is growing up in an all black neighborhood where everybody was a family.
- [00:02:04.30] INTERVIEWER: OK we can talk more about your neighborhood later on. What is your religion, if any, and what church you go to?
- [00:02:13.49] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Baptist, and I go to Second Baptist in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
- [00:02:18.56] INTERVIEWER: Now what is your highest level of formal education that you completed?
- [00:02:24.78] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I completed the 12th grade, but I went four years in college.
- [00:02:29.04] INTERVIEWER: OK. Well this next question is redundant did you ever attend additional school? Where did your college?
- [00:02:41.58] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I went to Wayne State.
- [00:02:42.81] INTERVIEWER: Wayne State. OK. What is your marital status?
- [00:02:49.26] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I'm a widow.
- [00:02:53.24] INTERVIEWER: How many children do you have?
- [00:02:55.74] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I had three. I only have two now. My middle son died in '95.
- [00:03:03.33] INTERVIEWER: How many siblings do you have?
- [00:03:05.72] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I don't have any siblings, I'm the last of the five.
- [00:03:09.42] INTERVIEWER: Five. What was your primary occupation?
- [00:03:15.81] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I did domestic work and I was a hair dresser.
- [00:03:23.80] INTERVIEWER: And at what age did you retire?
- [00:03:29.62] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I don't know whether I retired or just quit work. I think I was about 79 or 80.
- [00:03:36.56] INTERVIEWER: 79, 80. OK. OK we're going to talk about some memories of your childhood and youth. Even if these questions jog memories about other times in your life just respond to the memories for just the part that I ask you for. What was your family like when you were a child?
- [00:04:06.17] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well my family was a unique family. We stayed together. My mother and my three sisters and my brother. My mother worked. And she saw that we had everything that we needed to the best of her availability. And it was just a normal life.
- [00:04:38.47] INTERVIEWER: What sort of work did your parents do?
- [00:04:42.28] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: My mother was a seamstress, and my father worked in the coal mine.
- [00:04:51.62] INTERVIEWER: What is your earliest memory of them?
- [00:04:57.48] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well, my early memory-- as I say, my mother was a seamstress. She worked for JCPenney's. She made children's gowns and pajamas at that time. My father worked in coal mine. And my mother and father separated when I was about nine, and my father moved to Tuskegee. But he had never forgotten the children. He always sent help to my mother for the things that we needed.
- [00:05:39.52] INTERVIEWER: Were there any special days or events or family traditions or reunions you remember from your childhood?
- [00:05:49.74] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well when I was a child, we didn't have what they'd say a reunion. We just had gathering. And it was just mostly with the relatives that was in the area. And I remembered the community will always have what was known as a ice cream social. And they also would have talent shows for the kids, and that was a great event for us to participate in things like that.
- [00:06:22.86] INTERVIEWER: Did you take part in it? Did you do something?
- [00:06:25.67] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yes, I love poetry and I always recited some type of poetry.
- [00:06:34.92] INTERVIEWER: What holidays did your family celebrate?
- [00:06:38.33] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well we celebrated all of the holidays. But we celebrated them with a big meal, and gathering of the family.
- [00:06:46.37] INTERVIEWER: Do you remember the food?
- [00:06:49.58] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Oh, yes, one of the favorites was southern tea cakes, and a sweet potato pudding. And just the regular food that you would eat.
- [00:07:08.95] INTERVIEWER: This next question says how are the holidays traditionally celebrated in your family? Were there any special traditions that you all did?
- [00:07:22.02] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Not that I can remember. No special ones, because all of them was special to me. So I can't remember just one in particular.
- [00:07:38.60] INTERVIEWER: You've answered this in the beginning, but I'm going to ask it again. What was the highest grade you completed?
- [00:07:46.02] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well the 12th grade, I've completed the 12th grade and in '74, when my youngest son was graduating from high school, he didn't want to go to college. And at that time they had what is known as lifelong learning for older peoples. So I take that class. And I went to Wayne State for four years. But I didn't graduate because I owed them.
- [00:08:16.00] INTERVIEWER: Oh. Did you play any sports or join any other activities outside of school?
- [00:08:25.22] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yes, in our community we had a ball team and we'd play. We had a girls' ball team and a boys' ball team. And then we'd end up playing against each other. So that was the only sport. And then in my older age, I was on a bowling league.
- [00:08:48.85] INTERVIEWER: Did you play any sports?
- [00:08:51.60] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No, I didn't.
- [00:08:52.73] INTERVIEWER: What about your school experience in being different from school as you know it today?
- [00:09:02.21] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well my experience at school I went to an all black school in Alabama. It's nothing like the schools are today. I mean the kids they bully each other and all, and that's a hardship on kids because going to school as a whole is a big problem. But then when you have this bullying and you have to contend with, that makes it much harder for you and it hold you back. So the kids then was more friendly and loving towards one another than they are today.
- [00:09:44.88] INTERVIEWER: Did your family have any special sayings or expressions during this time that you remember?
- [00:09:52.83] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yes my, mother had this one. She would always say, don't say you can't do anything, try. She say because you fail, if you don't try. But try not to fail. And then another one she would say anything in life, if you want it you have to work for it.
- [00:10:23.47] INTERVIEWER: Were there any changes in your family life during your school years? You mentioned your father.
- [00:10:35.72] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yeah my father and my mother separated. But now I can't remember anything that's significant that I could recall.
- [00:10:51.25] INTERVIEWER: It didn't, life just went on.
- [00:10:53.32] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yeah.
- [00:10:56.75] INTERVIEWER: When thinking back on your school years, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time and how did they personally affect you or your family? Any social or historical event.
- [00:11:26.19] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I can't just say. That one kinda got me. Historical. I can't think of them.
- [00:11:45.74] INTERVIEWER: OK let me help maybe a little bit. You lived during the era of segregation. Because you said you went to an all black school. Can you speak about that like what was your school, was your school segregated? Was the elementary school near your home? Was there a high school for black students in the same area? How did you get to school? Who were your teachers? Were there restaurants or eating places for blacks where you lived? How were black visitors accommodated when they came?
- [00:12:26.47] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yes, there was a elementary school in my neighborhood. But it wasn't a high school. We had to go to a little sub division for a high school. And we went there by bus. The bus driver lived in our community, and he would pick us up for us about 7 o'clock and take us to the school. Then he'll go and pick up another group and bring them to the same school. And then he would take them home first, then he'll bring us home because that's where he lived.
- [00:13:04.61] And yeah, the school was all black. And the teachers then at the time was more concerned, I think, with the kids' education that they wanted to make sure that you succeed. I had this one teacher and we used to call her Mackenzie. And Mackenzie, she would always would tell us books and boys do not mix. And then we would tease her and aggravate her, because if we knew she was looking at us we would grab a boy hand and you know and then we talked. And she'll come and separate you, and said books and boys don't mix. And we made a game out of that.
- [00:13:56.38] So the high school that I went to, you had a lot of opportunities to learn. We had canning, we had sewing, we had cosmetology. We had band, wood work. And you could take any of those subjects. And I think I'd taken them all. And my mother used to tell me all the time, why don't you just stick to one thing? Because every semester I had something else, and I'm glad I did that because I learned how to do a lot.
- [00:14:36.96] INTERVIEWER: So were the teachers black too?
- [00:14:38.98] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yeah, all the teachers were black, all black school, all black teachers, all black bus drivers.
- [00:14:45.64] INTERVIEWER: How did you get to the high school?
- [00:14:47.20] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: The bus drivers.
- [00:14:48.35] INTERVIEWER: Oh, the bus driver.
- [00:14:48.99] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Cause he lived in my neighborhood.
- [00:14:51.88] INTERVIEWER: OK. And were there any restaurants or eating places for blacks where you lived?
- [00:15:00.22] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No, there wasn't. And if a visitor came to town, they stayed with relatives.
- [00:15:07.00] INTERVIEWER: OK.
- [00:15:07.35] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: There was no hotel in the area, but you could go further down in Birmingham, and there was hotels, but we couldn't stay there.
- [00:15:20.99] INTERVIEWER: OK I'm going to talk a little bit about adulthood, marriage, and family life. This set of questions covers a fairly long period of your life-- from the time you completed your education, entered the labor force, started a family, until all of your children left home, and you or your spouse retired. So we might be talking about a stretch of time spanning as much as four decades. All right, after you finish high school where did you live?
- [00:16:03.50] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: After I finished high school, my mother and I came to Michigan because my three older sisters was living here in Michigan and my brother was in the Army. And they wanted Mama and I to come up here to live, but I told mama I wanted to graduate from my high school before we came. I graduated in June of 1945, and we moved to Michigan in July of 1945. And I've been here ever since.
- [00:16:43.01] I was married in '47 and I lived in Ypsilanti for a short time, and then I moved back to Willow Run. And that's where I'm living now, In Willow Run. The city was Willow Run, but they changed it to Ypsilanti, because at that time they moved the post office from Willow Run to Ypsilanti. And then we became Ypsilanti, but it's still Willow Run.
- [00:17:21.41] INTERVIEWER: Did you meet your husband-- was he in Michigan already?
- [00:17:25.97] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: He was born and raised in Michigan. He was in the service when I moved to Michigan. He got out of the service in '46, and that's when I met him.
- [00:17:42.20] INTERVIEWER: Where did you meet him?
- [00:17:44.51] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well my sister was married to his brother, and he used to take us to work and come back and pick us up. And he rode with him and I met him that way. And we was married and we had three sons.
- [00:18:08.08] INTERVIEWER: Tell me what it was like when you were dating. What were your engagement and wedding like?
- [00:18:16.17] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well dating him, there's a lot of places you couldn't go at that time. So we would just go for long rides.
- [00:18:26.92] INTERVIEWER: In Willow Run and Ypsi, there were a lot of places you couldn't go?
- [00:18:29.75] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Right. We would just go for long rides. Every Sunday evening we went for a long ride. And we went to the movies, because there was a theater right in Willow Run. And then there was Cunningham Drug Store, may go down there and have a sandwich and ice cream or something like that. But that was the extent of it.
- [00:18:56.97] I didn't have a wedding. We went to Toledo and got married. And I worked at the airport for a short time, and then I got a job at St. Joe's hospital and I worked there. Now I guess I did that before I got married. And after I got married, I didn't work for a long time because I started a family.
- [00:19:26.54] INTERVIEWER: Raising the children. Tell me about your children and what life was like when they were young and living in the house? And what did your family enjoy doing together when your kids were still at home?
- [00:19:48.22] FEMALE SPEAKER: Before she answers that question I wanted to see if you need a break?
- [00:19:50.79] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No, it's OK.
- [00:19:52.61] INTERVIEWER: She's doing good. Do you need another Kleenex?
- [00:19:58.74] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No.
- [00:20:02.60] INTERVIEWER: OK I'm going to repeat that. Tell me about your children and what life was like when they were young and living in the house. And what did your family enjoy doing together when your kids were still at home?
- [00:20:23.26] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: My husband always taking us to ball games. And he and I both were great sports lovers.
- [00:20:30.13] INTERVIEWER: Baseball games?
- [00:20:31.36] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Baseball, football, softball, you name it. And my oldest son, when he played football for Willow Run High School, we would attend every game, didn't care where it was. And a lot of his players would say, I know who gonna be at the ballgame, even though nobody else parents gonna be there. Mr. and Mrs. Freeman gonna be at the ball game. And I said, well you know their parents ought to support them too.
- [00:21:04.50] And then after he graduated, my second son, he played football. And we followed him through his whole high school games and all. My youngest son, he didn't play sports. He plays sports, but not on a team. My oldest son is married he had one son, my middle son had one son, and my youngest son have a girl and boy. So he have two kids. And they are in the Ypsilanti area.
- [00:21:49.95] INTERVIEWER: Tell me, you mentioned that you all love sports and you went to his game. Are there other personal favorite things that you do for fun?
- [00:22:03.08] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: When the Harlem Globetrotters was come to Easton or in Detroit, we always take them there because they really enjoy seeing them. We would go on fishing trips, not out of state or out of town, just around in the area. And we used to attend church.
- [00:22:36.24] INTERVIEWER: Are there any special days, events, or family traditions you practiced that differed from your childhood traditions when you were in?
- [00:22:51.41] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No, because when I was a child, I was raised up in the church and the families did things together then and as an adult, we attended church my family, and we went to events. So I don't see anything different that I did from a child onto an adult.
- [00:23:20.47] INTERVIEWER: We're going to talk about retirement. You said you just quit, but this set of questions covers a fairly long period of your life. From the time you entered the labor force or started a family up to the present time. What was your main field of employment?
- [00:23:42.98] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Domestic work and hairdresser. I worked for several families in the Ypsilanti area and I enjoyed my work because I was my own boss. I went to work when I got ready and I worked as long as I wanted to. And there were some things they asked me to do and I told them I didn't do that. And I just spoke up.
- [00:24:19.29] And this one lady told me, she says, you know, I like the way you talk. And I says well if I don't like nothing and don't want to do it, I'm gonna let you know. And they didn't push me to do nothing. I know one day this lady asked me to clean the oven because she was having her bridge club over, and she wanted to know would I clean the oven. And I said, I don't like to clean oven. And she said, you know I like the way you said I don't. And I said well I'm just telling you I don't like to clean them. And she bought her oven stove that was self cleaning. And she didn't ask me to do that anymore.
- [00:25:11.37] INTERVIEWER: Did you do the hairdressing at the same time you were doing--
- [00:25:14.86] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yes I did hair.
- [00:25:17.88] INTERVIEWER: Now how'd you handle that?
- [00:25:19.82] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well I mostly did hair on the weekend or the days I was off. Or some evenings I would do hair after I get home, feed my family, and then I would do hair.
- [00:25:37.72] INTERVIEWER: How did you get started? How did you get started in both your-- was it an interest?
- [00:25:45.61] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well as I say, we were taught cosmetology in high school, and that followed me into my adult years. But working out of the home, I figured that I needed more than what my husband was giving us because he was the only one working and we had three kids to raise, with the house and owning a car, so I went to work then to help out.
- [00:26:19.00] INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me-- you've explained it a little bit that you said you did hair on the weekends and domestic during the week. But can you tell me a typical day like during the working years of your adult life? What would a typical day look like?
- [00:26:39.26] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well a typical day to me where I would get up in the morning-- and I hope I answer this right-- and after the kids would go to school then I would do my housework, do all of my chores and all, and I like craft. I love to crochet and knit and do different craft. And that's how I spent a lot of my time then and that's how I spend a lot of my time now. I don't know whether I answer that right or not.
- [00:27:13.54] INTERVIEWER: There is no right or wrong, it's how you did your day. What is the biggest difference in your main friend of employment from the time you started until now?
- [00:27:34.44] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Different from my friend?
- [00:27:35.72] INTERVIEWER: Well wait this there's something wrong with this. Your main friend? I'll just skip that one. What do you value most about what you did for a living, and why?
- [00:27:53.88] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well, I value I guess the money, because I needed that and that helped out a lot. And I value the time I get that I worked, because I always worked around nice peoples. And like I said, I always spoke my mind. If I didn't like anything, I'll let you know. So I guess I just valued having a job.
- [00:28:32.02] INTERVIEWER: Did you enjoy your work?
- [00:28:33.92] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Oh yeah, because every home that I went into was different. I mean, I enjoyed what I did and that made me do my house work much better, because when I came home if I'd have of did theirs and it looked good, I wanted mine to look good. And so yeah, I enjoyed my work and doing hair. I enjoyed trying to make the ladies look nice and all.
- [00:29:05.32] INTERVIEWER: How did your life change when you and/or your spouse retired and all the children had left home?
- [00:29:23.18] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well, it was more self because my husband he was a quiet guy and other than sports, he wasn't interested in doing anything else, traveling and all that. But he didn't mind me traveling, and I traveled quite a bit. So that was the only thing that changed after the kids left home. We had more time to our self.
- [00:29:50.28] INTERVIEWER: Was that good?
- [00:29:51.15] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yeah.
- [00:29:55.68] INTERVIEWER: When thinking back on your working adult life, what important social or historical events were taking place at that time and did they affect you personally, you and your family? Anything historically do remember, can you remember? Or socially?
- [00:30:36.26] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No, the only thing that I can look back on is the way things have changed now, and the way people living now. You're living longer now than you used to. And working condition now all have changed. Now we used to didn't have restaurants and hotel we can go to, but now we have those that you can go to. So that's a big change.
- [00:31:20.34] INTERVIEWER: That's a big change.
- [00:31:21.27] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: And jobs have changed. You can get better job, good paying jobs now, where before you had to low something jobs that pay less, so that been a big change. And education has been a great big change in the life of peoples.
- [00:31:43.11] INTERVIEWER: So it impacted you and your family, the schools, the jobs, and being able to go to different restaurants. And you weren't when you first came to--
- [00:32:02.14] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No.
- [00:32:02.93] INTERVIEWER: You were unable to do so.
- [00:32:04.88] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: No, you could go to Cunningham's and get a hot dog but you had to go outside to eat it, you couldn't sit there in Cunningham's and eat it. And restaurant, that was out of the picture. You couldn't go there.
- [00:32:18.85] INTERVIEWER: So how about the schools were integrated when your kids--
- [00:32:22.97] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Yeah yeah, they was all integrated.
- [00:32:28.16] INTERVIEWER: OK these are about social life and events in your life. Tell me how it is for you to live in the community that you're living, this community.
- [00:32:46.50] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well in the community that I live in to tell the truth, I don't even know some of my neighbors, because my area have turned over. A lot of people have moved out and Section 8 is buying a house and putting in and everybody in them. So you don't know your neighbors.
- [00:33:09.93] INTERVIEWER: But you did earlier on?
- [00:33:11.51] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Oh yeah, early on I knew everybody that lived in the three streets from where I live at and I knew everybody on every street. But now I don't even know the people four doors from me now. I mean everybody goes in, close their doors, and everybody-- you know, people are not as friendly as they used to be to me.
- [00:33:36.94] INTERVIEWER: When thinking back on your entire life, what important historical events have the greatest impact on you?
- [00:33:53.81] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I guess you could say the freedom that we have now that we didn't have before.
- [00:33:59.26] INTERVIEWER: In terms of what?
- [00:34:02.84] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Well you can just about say where you want to live. And you could just about say what kind of job you want. And you try to get that job. You can-- repeat the question.
- [00:34:25.46] INTERVIEWER: Well you are giving me some things that I just want to know-- what was one social-- or what important social and historical events had the greatest impact on you? And you've mentioned housing, jobs--
- [00:34:51.80] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: Schools, education.
- [00:34:56.68] INTERVIEWER: Schools, education. So that's for you. When thinking back over your entire life, what are you most proud of?
- [00:35:11.53] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: I'm proud of my family, I'm proud that I was able to raise three sons. And I'm proud that they are doing well. I'm proud that I had a good married life. And I'm proud that I'm a child of God. And I'm proud that I'm still living.
- [00:35:40.22] INTERVIEWER: What advice would you give to this younger generation?
- [00:35:48.52] TESSIE OLA FREEMAN: The advice that I would give to the younger generation is to respect the elders, to love yourself, to love God, do unto others as you would have them to do unto you. And get a education. And that's what I would leave to the young generation.
- [00:36:19.51] INTERVIEWER: Thank you.
February 4, 2014
Copyright: Creative Commons (Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share-alike)
Rights Held by: Ann Arbor District Library
Second Baptist Church of Ypsilanti
Wayne State University
Cunningham's Drug Store
Detroit Metropolitan Airport
St. Joseph Mercy Hospital
Willow Run High School
Race & Ethnicity
AACHM Living Oral History
Tessie Ola Freeman