As he gets ready to begin his final year at The University of Tulsa College of Law, Texas native Trevion Freeman (3L) is more convinced than ever that his contribution to the legal profession — and society at large — will be powerfully informed by a quest to expand access to justice for all.
At TU Law, Freeman has prepared for practice through not only his formal coursework but also by getting involved in multiple student organizations. In addition, his commitment to understanding the cultural and political complexities of oppression and marginalization led him to develop an article that will soon appear in the Tulsa Law Review focused on righting historical wrongs for the descendants of Black slaves owned by Native Americans.
Community values and limitless possibilities
Despite his proud Lone Star roots, Freeman is anything but a lone outlaw cowboy. Instead, he credits community as a key to his personal ethics and academic success.
Freeman learned the power of proper support while growing up within a tight-knit family in East Waco, which was plagued by gun violence, drugs and poverty. “I come from a good home with two loving parents that care about my future,” he remarked. “Because of my family and mentors’ guidance, I overcame the crippling quicksand that overtakes much of the African American youth in my community.”
Freeman’s parents, both of whom are local educators and social workers, instilled the values of advocacy into him from an early age, placing him in several public speaking events and youth organizations that serve the community. Even then, Freeman envisioned himself as a voice for the unheard: “By becoming a lawyer, I intend to advocate for communities such as East Waco and show African American children that anything is possible.”
Leadership for the people
Freeman takes leadership seriously. Last year at TU Law, the student body elected him president of the Student Bar Association (SBA). A student-run organization, the SBA is the umbrella under which all 20 other law student organizations sit. Along with serving as the governing body for TU Law students, the group also coordinates student activities, organizations and their respective funding.
In any normal year, this would include events such as the Halloween Party, the Mental Health Fair and the annual Barristers’ Ball. But, of course, 2020 was a year of unpredictable change and challenge. Freeman, however, could foresee the effects that an abrupt-yet-necessary shift to virtual classes could have on students.
“Students struggled to focus and learn complex legal issues without physical interaction with professors or their peers,” commented Freeman. “As leaders within the law school community, my SBA colleagues and I spoke with faculty and administration about this issue, providing physical data given by students about their mental health.”
This hard work paid off. Because of the SBA’s efforts in conjunction with faculty and administration, students were granted a pass/fail option for their 2020-21 courses. “This gave many students who were severely struggling throughout this pandemic year a sense of ease,” Freeman said. “They knew that their grades would not suffer because of circumstances out of their control.”
In addition to serving on the SBA, Freeman is involved with the Black Law Student Association, Board of Advocates and the American Association of Justice Trial Team. “Being a part of these groups has truly shaped me into the legal advocate I am today,” said Freeman.
“The case that changed everything”
The idea of helping those with circumstances out of their control is a theme aligned with several of Freeman’s internships during his time at TU. During summer 2021, Freeman interned with two firms: Atkinson, Brittingham, Gladd, Fiasco, Edmonds & Annis, P.C., which is a litigation firm with practices centered around insurance defense, corporate defense and medical malpractice defense; and Johnson | Cephas Law Firm, a litigation firm with practice in areas such as civil rights law and family law. For the fall, Freeman is looking forward to his externship as a legal clerk for the Honorable Judge Jodi Jayne, U.S. magistrate judge for the Northern District of Oklahoma (NDOK).
According to Freeman, however, his most impactful experience was in the summer and fall of 2020, when he worked as a legal intern in the U.S. Attorney Office for the NDOK. It was there that Freeman came across “the case that changed everything” and that led to his upcoming TLR publication.
“I was sitting in the library in the U.S. Attorney’s office looking over the Tulsa skyline when another one of the legal interns came to me and sparked up a conversation about federal Indian law,” Freeman recalled. Buzzing throughout the office that week was the news of a recent Supreme Court decision involving the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the State of Oklahoma. The case, McGirt v. Oklahoma, revolved around Seminole Nation member Jimcy McGirt and his appeal of his state convictions resulting from three sexual offenses. Arguing that his crimes took place on Creek Reservation land and should be tried as such, McGirt’s case sparked a national conversation on Native American rights.
Back at the U.S. Attorney’s office, discussion of this case led Trevion to discover some disturbing history. His coworker asked him a question that came as a shock: “You know that the tribes owned slaves, right?”
An often-overlooked part of the tragic history of slavery in the U.S. is the ownership of Black slaves by Native Americans. As one of the Five Civilized Tribes, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation enslaved thousands of Africans, forcing them to migrate west to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.
“I always saw the tribes as a disenfranchised people,” remarked Freeman. “I believed that, similar to African Americans, they had experienced the same plight of European colonization. The truth, however, was that the five major tribes of Oklahoma bought, sold and worked Black slaves.”
After the Civil War, African Slaves owned by the Creek Nation were, according to the Treaty of 1866, “set free and promised tribal citizenship and an equal stake in the tribe’s lands and fortunes.” These were the Creek Freedmen.
However, since that particular treaty, descendants of the Creek Freedmen have been removed, excluded, and withheld tribal rights by the Creek Nation. Today, the Creek Freedmen continue to fight for recognition as rightful tribal members.
“Here is a group of people that look like me but were enslaved by another group of people who themselves were mistreated and abused,” he explained. “Without my time interning at the NDOK, I would likely have never learned about the Creek Freedmen issue.”
Freeman’s internship kept him tightly in the loop, updating him when the Supreme Court ultimately affirmed McGirt’s plea, a decision that sent shockwaves across the State of Oklahoma. For Freeman, it raised eyebrows.
According to the court’s ruling, the Creek Freedmen possessed a newfound possibility of regaining the rights stripped of them years ago. Despite having never taken a class on federal Indian law, Freeman was inspired by the hope for change and the opportunity to help a community in need.
For the next several months, Freeman buried himself in investigating and writing. “I was so impressed with the level of research he did to familiarize himself with that area of law,” said Assistant Professor of Law Aila Hoss, an expert in federal Indian law and someone whom Freeman describes as key to his understanding of the nuances of the subject.
All this work and many sleepless nights led to his upcoming TLR article: “For Freedmen’s Sake: The Story of the Native Blacks of the Creek Nation and their Fight for Citizenship Post-McGirt.” According to Freeman, it is “a work dedicated to the fight for the underprivileged, marginalized and forgotten within Oklahoma history.”
In a similar vein, Freeman says that the “marathon” that is law school has prepared him well for life after graduation and passing the bar: a focused, relentless pursuit of justice “doing the thing I love for all my clients in the courtroom.”
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