Sitting beneath the massive oak tree, Leonard Freeman let his hands run across the gnarly bark and his imagination soar.
He knew the history of the 200-year-old tree known as “The Freedom Tree,” where two years after slavery ended, Gen. Gordon Granger made his way to Galveston and eventually to Missouri City to a tree along Misty Hollow Drive between Glenn Lakes and Lake Olympia Boulevards.
Beneath this shade tree, the general announced the end of slavery, which sparked the Juneteenth celebrations, the largest in the nation, which are still held here. As Missouri City grew and flourished, so did its land that attracted peoples from around the world to live here.
With those thoughts in mind, Freeman used his painter’s hands and artist’s eyes to create an impressive 10-foot tall, seven-foot wide mural for Missouri City featuring the tree and multiple faces, representing Missouri City. As part of the Black History Month Celebration for Missouri City, the painting will be unveiled 5 p.m. Friday at the Visitors Center during the Artists and Authors portion of the ceremony.
“I had to get the right faces. Friendly. Confident. Babies, pets, young, old, black, white, Asian, African, Mexican, Syrian. I wanted faces that said we are your neighbors. You are welcome here. Everybody. Come,” said Freeman.
“The thing I came to understand when the Emancipation Proclamation was read here, slaves were technically free,” he said. “I like to make the point that in the sharing of the Emancipation Proclamation, it set the slaves free and also set the owners free.”
Freeman knows all about the power of being set free from an ugly past.
Drawing and sketching came naturally to him as a young one when an aunt gave him pencils and a sketchpad to keep him busy. He read and collected art books, taught himself, eventually attended night classes at the Art Institute of Houston and made a living freelancing as an airbrush illustrator.
He never took his artwork seriously and he sought solace from his inner demons with alcohol and drug abuse. But one day his sister talked him into coming to church. He listened to the preacher and felt the minister was telling his story.
“I never killed anyone, or stole or robbed. But I wasn’t right. I was a wretch and in some pretty precarious situations more than once. I didn’t feel I had a purpose. But God made himself known to me,” said Freeman.
The words of the sermon penetrated his barrier. He felt like a spotlight was on him as the pastor encouraged from the pulpit.
“He kept saying, ‘I know someone here is hurting. Someone here is afraid and ashamed. You don’t have to be afraid.’ I walked up there and he baptized me in the pool right there. Something broke inside of me and I crumpled and cried and sobbed. When I finished I felt like a new man and my life changed,” recalls Freeman.
I used to curse all the time, I was an alcoholic, drug abuser, womanizer I was destroying my marriage. It’s one of the testimonies God’s given me to give men. And even though you are saved, you are still subject to being hurt, you have to learn to be smart and listen for God,” he says.
That was 31 years ago. Now at 67 he creates and continues to create. He’s had loss, such as when Hurricane Ike destroyed much of his works. But he rebuilt and continued to paint. His works commanded the attention of Tyler Perry, who bought a $17,000 piece. He wants to pursue portraits. He enjoys landscapes and the soul of trees.
He says being asked by the city to create the mural was a blessing.
City Manager Anthony J. Snipes said he “can’t wait to show residents and stakeholders all of the fun they can have exploring one of America’s best places to live, work and play.”
The festivities will launch with City Council and staff showcasing the visitors center on Feb. 9 at a 5 p.m. with the grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“The new facility is located inside our redesigned Community Center and features a holographic virtual assistant and interactive kiosk. The project is an opportunity for the city to share our tourism program with the public and highlight the great sites we have for regional visitors to enjoy, including the award-winning Edible Arbor Trail, the top-ranked Quail Valley Golf Course, and City Centre at Quail Valley, the historical Freedom Tree Park, a variety of other premier parks and fine-dining restaurants, a first-class movie theater, and a three-star hotel that offers family-friendly staycations,” Snipes said.
The visitors center was funded by $100,000 in hotel occupancy tax revenue, which also accounts for a tourism manager to be hired. Recruitment for the position is underway.
Following the visitors center ceremony, city officials will kick-off the Fourth Annual Black History Month Celebration of Culture and Music with an Artists and Authors Exhibition at 6 p.m. in the Community Center, 1522 Texas Pkwy.
Then, on Feb. 10 in the same facility, the formal event program will feature an inaugural panel on Education and the Economy with Dr. Madeline Burillo, president of the Missouri City Houston Community College Campus, Dr. Charles Dupre, Fort Bend Independent School District superintendent, and Dr. Robert Bostic, Stafford Municipal School District superintendent.
Black History Month partners include H-E-B, Classic Chevrolet Sugar Land, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, BlueCross Blue Shield, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson LLP, Houston Community College, Black Leadership AIDS Crisis Coalition, Fort Bend Academy of Arts & Dance, Micheaux’s Diner & Catering, Inc., The Greatest BBQ, Texasiana Food Truck, Boogie’s BBQ, The Pink Company, Cajun Pits Catering, and Niagara Bottling, LLC.
Saturday’s full agenda is as follows:
Event Program and Education Panel: 11:30 a.m. –1 p.m.
Missouri City Taste and Sound of Soul: 2 p.m.
Let’s Stomp Out HIV/AIDs Stepshow Competition: 2-4:30 p.m.
An Afternoon of Zydeco and Jazz with Step Rideau and Theresa Grayson: 4:30-6:45 p.m.
Fort Bend Academy of Arts & Dance presents A Culture of Movement Dance Showcase, 7-9 p.m.
“We’re proud to see our Black History Month tradition continue to recognize African American culture and accomplishments,” said Snipes. “This year we wanted to seamlessly blend together celebrations of history, local artists, authors, educators, entertainers, business owners and of course, our area youth. All of these events will be top-notch and we look forward to hosting residents and stakeholders from across the region.”