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Attorney, former Tuskegee Airman Wendell Freeland dead at 88

| Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, 4:42 p.m.
Tuskegee Airmen Robert Higginbotham, 87, of Palm Springs, Calif., (left) and Wendell Freeland, 88, of Shadyside joke around at the unveiling of the largest Tuskegee Airmen Recognition Exhibit in any U.S. airport in September 2013 at the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Tuskegee Airmen Robert Higginbotham, 87, of Palm Springs, Calif., (left) and Wendell Freeland, 88, of Shadyside joke around at the unveiling of the largest Tuskegee Airmen Recognition Exhibit in any U.S. airport in September 2013 at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

Former Tuskegee Airman Wendell G. Freeland, a civil rights pioneer, political activist and prominent Pittsburgh defense attorney, is being remembered as an intellectual giant and gentle warrior.Freeland, who became president of the Urban League of Pittsburgh and a co-founder of the Hill House Association, died on Friday in his Shadyside home, where he had been under hospice care for pancreatic cancer. He was 88.

“He belonged to that category of men I have known over time as gentle warriors,” said Regis Bobonis Sr., chairman of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region Inc.

“He was welcoming to people and approachable at all times. In polite and social company, there was no one more gracious and affable than Wendell,” Bobonis said. “But in civil rights and the Urban League, he was as tough as they come.”

Freeland, whose great-grandmother was a slave who was freed by her owner in 1850, was a product of the Jim Crow era of segregation, said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph K. Williams III.

“He was one of the brightest men I have come across. He did not have the benefit of affirmative action. Everything he became was by sheer merit,” Williams said.

“He was a consummate gentleman and a man of his word. He could have passed for white with his complexion and his name. He chose to acknowledge his African-American heritage.”

Freeland was a native of Baltimore who was drafted in 1943, becoming a bombardier for the Tuskegee Airmen, who during World War II became the military's first black pilots.

The war ended before he could see combat, but he played a prominent role in the fight against racism.

He was twice arrested in the Freeman Field Mutiny, a precursor to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement, which occurred in the spring of 1945 at the Freeman Army Airfield near Seymour, Ind., where he twice went into an all-white officers club against orders.

When he and other black officers were arrested and asked to sign a paper certifying they understood the military's segregation policy, they refused and were subject to court-martial. Charges were dropped against most officers, and three years later President Truman issued an executive order to racially integrate the military.

“He was tremendously bright and interesting and totally committed to equality for African-Americans in society,” said Elsie Hillman, former Republican national committeewoman and well-known philanthropist.

Freeland won a scholarship to Howard University, where he graduated cum laude in 1947. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and earned his law degree from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1950.

He moved to Pittsburgh, was admitted to the bar in 1951 and soon became involved in the Highland Park Swimming Pool case in which he sued the city to assure the safety of blacks who tried to swim there.

He later met Hillman, becoming her political and family lawyer and forming a friendship that would last the rest of his life.

“I had not seen any African-Americans involved in campaigns in the Republican Party before 1960,” said Hillman, who teamed with Freeland to recruit more volunteers and candidates from the black community.

“He was good company. He loved doing the crossword puzzles,” Hillman said.

Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, met Freeland at a civil rights march in the 1960s, he said.

Robinson said Freeland “was always able to separate right from wrong and be on the right side of issues, and I held him in the highest regard.”

Freeland was an unabashed Steelers fan.

“Every time the Steelers played, he decked himself out in Steelers sweaters and hats, a real rah-rah guy for the Steelers,” Bobonis said.

Freeland helped to convince the state Supreme Court in 2010 to posthumously admit George Vashon, a black attorney, to the Allegheny County bar. Vashon, who was turned down in 1847 and 1868, later practiced before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Freeland is survived by his wife, Jane Young Freeland; two children, Michael W. Freeland and Lisa B. Freeland; and two grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements, which are incomplete, will be under the direction of the House of Law Inc., a funeral home in Penn Hills.

Michael Hasch and Tory N. Parrish are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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