Obituary: Wendell Freeland / Tuskegee airman, lawyer, pioneering civil rights leader

Feb. 21, 1925 - Jan. 23, 2014


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Wendell Freeland, a respected lawyer, pioneering civil rights leader and proud member of the Tuskegee airmen of World War II fame, died early Thursday morning after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 88 and lived in Shadyside.

Mr. Freeland, former chairman of the board of directors of the Urban League of Pittsburgh from 1962 to 1967 and a former senior vice president of the national board, was at the forefront of the civil rights movement here in the 1960s.

"I don't think there's any part of African-American history in this city that he wasn't a part of," said Lynne Hayes-Freeland, his former daughter-in-law. "He didn't just talk the talk, he walked the walk."

A product of segregated schools in his native Baltimore, he took on such legal cases as integrating the Highland Park pool while challenging local companies to hire blacks and urging African-Americans to develop the skills to land good jobs.

In a 1963 speech at a meeting of the Allegheny County Council on Civil Rights, he called for "action, not slogans, to compensate for the deprivations of the past."

Before becoming board chairman at the Urban League, he chaired the board's education committee and helped establish a dialogue between the black community and the Pittsburgh Public Schools board that laid the foundation for desegregation and the hiring of black teachers, the Urban League said.

Last year, the league honored him by creating the Wendell G. Freeland Living Legacy Award for future honorees who uphold the league's mission.

Mr. Freeland continued to champion the rights of African-Americans into old age. In 2010, he persuaded the state Supreme Court to posthumously admit George Vashon, a 19th-century black lawyer from Pittsburgh, to the Pennsylvania bar.

Mr. Vashon's application had been twice turned down by the Allegheny County Bar, so Mr. Freeland and Nolan Atkinson, a Philadelphia lawyer and Vashon's great-grandson, petitioned the court on behalf of George Vashon's descendants.

"That was something that he often said he was most proud of," said Ms. Hayes-Freeland, who had been married to Mr. Freeland's son, Michael.

Mr. Freeland's dedication to equal rights began long before his arrival in Pittsburgh.

Among the Tuskegee airmen, he was held in high esteem for taking part in the 1945 Freeman Field mutiny, often considered the first step toward integrating the military in 1949.

He was among a group of black officers with the 477th Bombardment Group stationed at Freeman Field in Indiana who tried to enter an all-white officers' club and were arrested.

Most were released, but when about 100 black officers later refused to sign a statement indicating they understood that they weren't allowed in the club, they were arrested for disobeying orders during wartime.

"That's why Wendell is so special to us," said Regis Bobonis Sr., chairman of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region. "He was in icon inside the civil rights movement."

In September, Mr. Freeland was one of three remaining local Tuskegee airmen who attended the dedication of an exhibit in their honor at Pittsburgh International Airport. The event was special for him.

"History and the contributions of African-Americans were a big part of who he was," Ms. Hayes-Freeland said.

The Tuskegee memorial group will honor him with a eulogy next Saturday at its annual meeting in the Sewickley Public Library.

Born in Baltimore in 1925, Mr. Freeland enlisted in 1943 during World War II and served as a bombardier in Europe. He often joked that he was chosen as a bombardier because he was short and could fit into the cramped aircraft compartment.

Back home following the war, he married his wife, Jane, in 1946. He graduated from Howard University and was one of the first black graduates of the University of Maryland School of Law.

He and Jane arrived in Pittsburgh in 1950 when he took a job with the Smith Jones law firm. He later worked as an assistant district attorney and then returned to private practice.

He met Elsie Hillman, philanthropist and Republican power broker, in 1960 and became involved in Republican politics at a time when the GOP was trying to attract more blacks.

"He was my political lawyer and did all my political work until just last month," Ms. Hillman said. "He became a total part of my family. We'll miss him terribly."

As an attorney, Mr. Freeland accepted all kinds of clients, his family said, and often didn't charge for his services.

"He took cases for people who could not pay," said Ms. Hayes-Freeland. "If they were a plumber, then they would do some plumbing work [rather than pay]."

He continued to practice law into his 80s and was a regular at The Carlton restaurant, Downtown, which named several drinks for him, including the "Wendelltini."

"He was just a real wonderful person, bright and smart, one of the more prominent intellectual lawyers you would find over the generations in Pittsburgh," said owner Kevin Joyce. "He was a very dynamic man. He always had time for everybody. He really had a common touch."

In addition to his wife and his son, Mr. Freeland is survived by his daughter, Lisa Freeland, federal public defender for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Funeral arrangements were not complete Friday.


Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com or 412-231-0132.


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