The Freeman Houses

In Summer 2012, GBCE’s Green Team deconstructed the non-historic portions of the circa 1848 Freeman Houses situated in the South End of Bridgeport, on lower Main Street. We shored up and protected the original structures for future renovation. The Freeman Houses are a living testimony to one of the earliest settlements of free blacks in Connecticut. After years of advocacy and fund-raising to acquire and save the houses from demolition, the founding board of directors created the Mary & Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community, a non-profit organization founded in 2010. Funding from the City of Bridgeport, the 1772 Foundation and the CT Trust for Historical Preservation, has assured the survival of these significant and historic homes.

GBCE trained 15 unemployed, minority residents in deconstruction techniques at this site. The students spent 3 weeks shadowing Green Team supervisors and crew on the project, learned the history of the property and unearthed historic elements hidden in the structure. Maisa Tisdale, President of the Foundation, taught them the story of Mary and Eliza Freeman, the Little Liberia settlement, and the significance of this history and how it connects to the students’ vision of themselves and their modern-day community.

 

 

History of the Freeman Houses

by Charlie Brilvitch, former City Historian of Bridgeport, CT.

The Freeman Houses are significant historical structures; they are the last two remaining houses of “Little Liberia,” a settlement of free African Americans in the 19th century. It was founded in 1831, and reached its highest population just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The name “Little Liberia” originated from the people of this Bridgeport community’s strong identification with the (at that time) new African nation of Liberia, a homeland established for freed African slaves from the United States.

In 1848, sisters Mary and Eliza Freeman purchased two adjoining building lots in “Little Liberia”. Over the years, the two women became successful landowners and respected members of the Bridgeport community. During their lifetimes, the Freeman sisters overcame significant obstacles both as women and as African Americans in 19th century society.

The wood-framed, clapboard-covered, two-family houses were built in 1848 and were added to the National Register of Historic Places on February 22, 1999. The houses are the oldest remaining houses built by free blacks in Connecticut. The homes and nearby Walter’s Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church are listed sites on the Connecticut Freedom Trail.

Mary (1815-1883) and Eliza (1805-1862) Freeman, were born free in Derby, Connecticut, a center for the African American population at the time. They purchased two adjoining building lots in Bridgeport in 1848 and used the houses built there as rental property while they lived and worked in New York for a number of years. Eliza returned to Bridgeport around 1855 and Mary moved back to the community around 1861. They both died relatively well off for their times and situations and as well-respected members of the community.

In 1998, a 104-year-old resident, who had arrived in Bridgeport nearly a century earlier when her family moved north from Virginia, described her neighborhood: “Little Liberia was a close-knit, safe African-American community where family life was highly respected and the spirit of the community was evident and prevailed, even during hard times.” The community was first called “Ethiope” and developed as a village of free blacks, Native Americans, and Cape Verdeans, a village with its own school, lending library, churches and social organizations.

In early 2010, the two Freeman houses were said to be near collapse and that, for one, rebuilding, as opposed to restoration, might be necessary. At that time, Mayor Bill Finch announced $47,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for the houses and a newly formed Mary & Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community is seeking additional funds from organizations such as the 1772 Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Freeman Center’s goal is to eventually open the Little Liberia houses to school groups and historical tours and researchers.