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Centenarian 's career was dedicated to education

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following human interest piece is the second and last of two-part story about the life and recent 100th birthday celebration of longtime teacher Walton Louise Brown Freeman. Mrs. Freeman, a retired Jefferson County educator, now lives in Thomson.)

Walton Louise Brown Freeman recently celebrated her 100th birthday at her home in Thomson.

Although it's difficult for her to communicate with others as well as she did years ago, Mrs. Freeman does the best she can.

"We all understand her pretty well," said Stanley Stapleton, who along with his brother Shawn provides her with a place to live at Thomson Funeral System. "She's such a sweet lady."

Mrs. Freeman, a native of Baldwin County, Ga., graduated from Tuskegee University and became one of the first black teachers at Wrens Colored Junior High School in 1929. The other educators there back then included the principal, the late O.S. Beasley, who also was a church pastor; his wife, Nena Beasley; and Thelma Barnes.

The four educators taught their pupils in four small classrooms.

Before construction of the school was completed in March of that year by the late Noah Little, who was well known for his outstanding skills as a carpenter, black students were educated in tiny, mostly one-room wooden buildings in the outlying portions of Wrens, in neighboring Jefferson County.

Mrs. Freeman, who was known as Miss Brown back then because she had not yet married, witnessed many changes during her time as a schoolteacher, a career that spanned nearly five decades.

One such change was the renaming of the junior high school as Wrens Colored High School.

As more black students enrolled in the school system, the need to expand became apparent, and additional classrooms were eventually built.

During an interview with Mrs. Freeman as she celebrated her 100th birthday, she was asked if she remembered the Rev. Beasley, the first principal she ever served under as a schoolteacher.

She paused for a few seconds before replying, "Oh, yes. I liked him."

The Rev. Beasley was described as "the guiding light" for the black school in Wrens, according to a publication titled Tracking Wrens 1884-1984, a salute to the town's centennial celebration.

After retiring from the school system, the Rev. Beasley and his family moved to Los Angeles.

While Miss Brown was teaching in Wrens, she met Thomas C. Freeman, whom she eventually married. Mr. Freeman was the owner of Freeman Funeral Home -- the first black-owned funeral home in Wrens. As owner/director, Mrs. Freeman's husband operated the funeral home there for nearly 60 years. He built the funeral home and opened its doors in 1950.

The two shared a wonderful life together, even though they never had any children, according to family members.

During the birthday celebration, several of Mrs. Freeman's relatives came to Thomson to visit her and presented her a beautifully decorated birthday cake. They included Mrs. Freeman's nieces, Frances Echols and Shirley King.

Their childhood memories at the home of their uncle and aunt still linger fondly with them today.

"Fran and I would always eagerly look forward to the time when we were about to go and spend the summer with Granny and Granny Pie in Milledgeville, Ga.," recalled Mrs. King. "The trip never disappointed us. From the time we got off the train, we were in grandchildren heaven. Our grandparents were wonderful to us. We had free rein of my grandparents' house and my Aunt Julia's house, just down the path from my grandparents."

At least that was the case until Aunt Walton Freeman came along.

"If I described my Aunt Shirl as Auntie Mame, the contrast was my Aunt Walton," said Mrs. King. "I can't remember exactly what kind of car she drove. All I know is when she drove that car from Wrens, Ga., to Milledgeville, the only image that would come into my head was that of the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. You remember that scene when she was flying on her broomstick like a bat out of ....; well that was the image I got of Aunt Walton. She came whizzing into my grandparents' house, frowning, giving orders and demanding respect."

Mrs. King said Mrs. Freeman had a way of putting the fear of God in everybody.

"She worked us all to death with the zeal of a task master overseeing Hebrew slaves," added Mrs. King. "Forget about sleeping late or taking your time. If it was not Walton Freeman's schedule, it did not exist. We had to be out of bed dressed and fed and ready to work -- no exceptions."

Mrs. Freeman, according to her nieces, is a no-nonsense person.

"She demanded the best from us at all times, never allowing us to backslide or make excuses," said Mrs. King. "Aunt Walton was one of those characters that has played an important role in my life story. She was a character that did not concern herself with false vanity, needless frills or unearned praise. She gave love justly and with honesty. That image of Aunt Walton swooping into Milledgeville and looking like the Wicked Witch of the West has softened and makes me wish with all my heart that I could see her do that just once more."

Web posted on Thursday, January 27, 2011

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