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A surgeon brings cancer care to Harlem

A surgeon brings cancer care to Harlem

Dr. Harold Freeman is a soft-spoken man with strong-held opinions. He grew up in our nation’s capital at a time when restroom doors and drinking fountains radiated the ugly messages of segregation, while African-American churches and schools provided a strong cohesive community. As a youth, he rose above the racial barriers of the time, ultimately forging his anger at racial disparities into his life’s work.

But the seed for that life’s work was actually planted almost 200 years ago by a man who defiantly invented the family name of Freeman—a slave named Walter, who was purchased in 1829 for $388.

Harold P. Freeman, MD, recently invited ONI to speak with him at the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention in Harlem, where he is president and founder. “My father was a lawyer, my mother was a teacher. We didn’t have a lot of resources, but it was a tight family that stressed education,” said Dr. Freeman, sitting at an oval table in the Ralph Lauren Center’s conference room. Pictures on the walls capture the kaleidoscopic personality of Harlem—a poor but storied neighborhood with more than 400 churches.

The price of freedom

But before walking down the road from segregated Washington, DC, to his pioneering accomplishments in oncology, Dr. Freeman wanted to revisit the enigma of the Honorable George E. Badger. He said that he knew his great-great grandfather had been a slave in Raleigh, North Carolina, but he felt compelled to learn more about his namesake’s story.

“So I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to search the archives. My great-great grandfather’s slavemaster was a man known as the Honorable George E. Badger,” Dr. Freeman said. Badger, a plantation owner, was a well-known judge in North Carolina who served as Secretary of the Navy and later as a US Senator for 11 years.

“I held my great-great grandfather’s bill of sale and read that his wife, my great-great grandmother, Eliza, was given to the Honorable George Badger as a wedding gift by his father-in-law,” Dr. Freeman said. He paused. “I couldn’t help but wonder how a man could be both honorable and a slavemaster.”

Of course, the real “honorable man” in this story is Dr. Freeman’s progenitor, Walter Freeman. Working part-time as a carpenter off the plantation, Walter saved the impossible-sounding sum of $3,000 and purchased his own freedom from Badger. What better name for himself and future generations than Freeman. Relentlessly, Walter Freeman kept his shoulder to the wheel, purchasing his wife and children from Badger, his former slavemaster.

“One of my great-great grandfather’s sons graduated from Harvard Dental School in 1869, becoming the country’s first African-American dentist,” Dr. Freeman said.

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