In 1978 Joseph Freeman became the first man of African ancestry to be granted the priesthood after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced that any male could be ordained, regardless of race or color. Freeman was born July 24, 1953, in Vanceboro, North Carolina, to Rose Lee Smith and Joseph Freeman Sr. His great grandparents were slaves prior to the Civil War but escaped and eventually become tobacco farmers in North Carolina. They passed down the family business to Joseph"s father who by the 1960s was farming in tobacco, cabbage, and other crops. Joseph worked with his father and brothers as loggers in the winter as well.
Freeman was raised in a Christian family. His mother was a minister for the Holiness congregation, and Joseph had a lifelong dream to become a minister like his mother. He was baptized into the Holiness Congregation at age ten. The family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, during his teenage years and after graduation from high school, Freeman was ordained a Holiness minister. He turned down a scholarship to attend a Methodist seminary because he believed it was more important to be a lay clergyman that to be paid to preach.
A year after graduating from high school, Freeman joined the Army at the age of nineteen and was stationed in Hawaii from 1972 to 1975. While there, he visited the Polynesian Cultural Center and met missionaries from the LDS Church. He eventually became converted to the LDS faith, joining on September 30, 1973, in spite of his knowledge that the church did not allow black men to be ordained to the priesthood. He married his wife, Toe Isapella Leituala (pronounced To-a), a woman from Samoa, who was instrumental in his conversion.
Toe had served a mission from 1970 to 1972 in Samoa and attended the Church College in Hawaii while working at the Polynesian Cultural Center. Joseph was impressed with her religious upbringing; she also came from a very religious family and was also a convert to the LDS Church. They were married on June 15, 1974.