When Capt. Lou Freeman first interviewed for a job with Southwest Airlines in November 1980, he didn’t realize there were no other black pilots at the company.

“I didn’t think about it at all … in my interview it wasn’t a big deal,” said Freeman, who grew up in Dallas. “It didn’t take long to figure out. We only had 187 pilots.”

On Thursday, Freeman wheeled his suitcase down a jet bridge at Love Field for the last time as a Southwest pilot, capping off a 36-year career that included being the first black chief pilot of any major U.S. airline, leading the crew that flew Rosa Parks’ remains around the country before her interment and serving as a lasting ambassador to future pilots of all races.

Wearing a white shirt, blue slacks and an American flag tie, Freeman seemed at ease in the hours before his 12:40 flight from Dallas to Chicago on Thursday, joking that he’d been “practicing his landings” in preparation for his final ride. He’ll turn 65 on Monday, the federally mandated retirement age for U.S. pilots.

“As long as I get us to the gate with no dings and no dents, I’ve done my job,” Freeman said. “I haven’t dinged an airplane yet and I don’t plan to start today.”

A steady stream of Southwest employees stopped to hug Freeman, shake hands or pose for photos with him before the flight, while friends and family waited in the gate area to board the flight with him to Chicago, where a reception in his honor was held.

Freeman said it’s the people he’ll miss most when he’s retired, especially running into old friends at airports around the country.

“It’s bittersweet,” Freeman said of his retirement, “because I know I won’t get the chance to do it anymore. But I’m happy that I got a chance to do it. To be able to say I flew big jets.”

Breaking racial barriers

By the time he got to Southwest, Freeman was no stranger to breaking through racial barriers.

Born in Austin, he moved with his family to East Dallas when he was 10. He was part of the first class of students to integrate Woodrow Wilson High School, where he became the first black cadet corp commander of the school’s ROTC program.

He continued on to the Air Force ROTC at East Texas State University, now Texas A&M University-Commerce, where he initially failed the pilot portion of the aptitude exam.

“I knew nothing about airplanes. … I didn’t like the idea that I hadn’t succeeded in something,” he said.

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