When you meet Dr. Melissa Freeman, the first thing you notice is her elegance, both in how she dresses and how she speaks. Then, it is her warmth and charm.
At 94 years of age, Freeman is still as sharp as a pin and works each and every day. When I meet her in her private practice in Harlem, she is full of questions about the countries I have traveled to in my job as a reporter. She regales me with stories of trips to Vienna to see the opera, eating the best pasta in Italy, and walking in the highlands of Scotland.
I congratulate her on a momentous milestone: 65 years as a practicing doctor in New York. It is an accolade she brushes off humbly, saying, “I’m just doing what I love to do. I love helping people.”
But don’t be fooled by her nonchalant attitude toward her career. She became a doctor in 1955, at a time when not only was it difficult for a woman to practice medicine, but extremely difficult for an African American woman.
As a young girl, Freeman was a talented pianist and went to college to study music and art. It was toward the end of her studies that a family friend suggested she pursue a career in medicine. “I thought, well maybe it could be possible, but no, really, it’s not possible,” she recalled. Despite the huge social and economic barriers in her way, she forged ahead and graduated from Howard University School of Medicine in Washington D.C.
But what makes her story even more incredible is her family’s past. Her grandfather, Albert B. Walker, was born in the 1850s, taken from his mother and sold into slavery. He was put to work in the fields in Virginia right up until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. When we speak about it, her attitude changes from cheerful and carefree to more somber and serious.
“I’m mad that it happened. I’m hurt that it happened. It was a terrible era in our nation’s history. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, they told him: ‘You can go back to your mother now.’ She hadn’t seen him in all these years and didn’t recognize him. He identified himself to her and said, ‘I’m your son Albert.’ And they never parted.”
Despite his very difficult beginning in life, Albert endeavored to make something of himself. He moved to New York City, where he became a reptile keeper at the Bronx Zoo. Melissa has fond memories of growing up in the same house as her grandad. “He would get up early in the morning and brush the dirt outside the property. My sisters and I would run out to school and say, ‘Good morning Papa,’ and he would say, ‘Good morning.’ He was very polite and gentle. He was a quiet man.” She says her grandfather never talked about his background, however.
As he was enslaved for all of his childhood, his granddaughter imagines that he never received an education, saying, “I’m not sure how much he could read, but every day he would sit and read his Bible. On Sundays he would dress neatly and go to church.” The steady, ever-present faith that her grandfather showed had an influence on young Melissa, and it has stayed with her all of her life. “My faith in God has been with me all throughout my life. I owe everything to God,” she said.
Dr. Freeman splits her weeks working for Beth Israel Medical Center, where she works with the methadone program, and her own private practice in Harlem, where each day she sees dozens of patients, sometimes working until 1am. She still has a strong love of music and regularly attends the philharmonic and opera in New York.
The 94-year-old doctor, with a smile, shares her secret to a long and happy life: “You do what you have to do. I love people. I love talking to people. And [have] a strong faith in God.”
Colm Flynn is the EWTN News Rome correspondent. He is currently based in New York City.