The Fight for Preservation Continues at Connecticut’s Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses
The concept of freedom is at the heart of our nation’s history. Countless battles have been waged across American landscapes to preserve the idea of liberty, though not all of them included heavy artillery. In fact, some of the most important examples of sovereignty stemmed from everyday acts of resistance. As free women of color in the 19th century, Mary and Eliza Freeman defied historic constraints on independence by realizing their own success.
Born in 1815 and 1805, respectively, Mary and Eliza Freeman lived as free African Americans from the time of their births in Derby, Connecticut, to their deaths later that century in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Though the state of Connecticut did not officially abolish slavery until 1848, Mary and Eliza’s parents owned property in Derby, allowing their children to grow up somewhat removed from the practice many other African Americans suffered at the time.
One sibling of Mary and Eliza’s, Joel Freeman, became a leader at the forefront of the free black community that was rapidly growing in Bridgeport. Originally called Ethiope, the Bridgeport neighborhood that would become known as “Little Liberia” was transformed by the increasing numbers of free blacks, runaway slaves, and Native Americans who called it home. As Joel purchased properties and became well-known for helping to develop the local church, school, and lending library, Little Liberia—named for its association with the newly independent African republic—continued to flourish socially and economically.
“As it turns out, there were other ‘Liberia’ communities (settlements of free people of color) around the Atlantic in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean,” explains Maisa Tisdale, president and CEO of the Mary and Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community. “Of all these Liberia communities, only Bridgeport’s Liberia survives with buildings, artifacts, and documentation. The other early destination settlements like those in Philadelphia, Providence, and New York City were buried by urban renewal long ago.”
The completion of the railway between Bridgeport and New York City was substantial in the community’s continued growth. In 1848, Mary and Eliza saw opportunity in this newly convenient mode of transportation. For the previous four years, the sisters had lived in New York City where Mary worked as a hotel chef, and upon selling their family holdings in Derby, they decided to purchase adjoining lots in Little Liberia.
Just around the corner from Joel’s homestead, they constructed sizable homes that they leased as rental properties while they continued to live and work in New York over the next decade. “The Freeman Houses stood tall: imposing sights on the 19th-century streetscape, donned with bright and expensive pigments, embodying the prosperity of this community,” says Tisdale. Upon returning to Bridgeport, the sisters continued to amass a decent amount of wealth through wise real estate decisions. It was estimated that by her death in 1883, Mary’s property holdings were valued between $30,000 and $50,000.
Today, the once-prosperous Little Liberia community of the 19th century is long gone, except for the two residences still standing on their original wood-framed structures. Mary’s house, located on the northern end of the lot, constitutes an Italianate double house (duplex) design, while Eliza’s Greek Revival half-house holds a side-gable roof typical of the time. Though a looming warehouse, apartment complex, and wide parking lot surround the Freeman Houses, they continue to endure today.
The survival of these two dwellings is a testament to the distinct success of both Mary and Eliza during their lifetimes. Women and especially women of color in the mid-19th century were not permitted to vote, and few were known to be property owners. Mary and Eliza never married, either, making their accomplishments as independent businesswomen even more noteworthy. “Mary and Eliza Freeman exemplified a dominant tenet of Bridgeport’s free Liberia community: that the attainment, expression, and security of freedom—whatever your gender, whether Black or Indian—was possible through property ownership and entrepreneurship,” says Tisdale.
Though its rigid foundations haven’t given way yet, the homes were recently under threat. A storefront was attached to the front of Eliza’s house in the early 1900s, partially blocking the view of the home and obscuring it further. A fire, as well as demolition threats reaching back to the 1980s, prompted the question of leveling the homes. Until 2009, the structures sat boarded and empty. Around that time, nonprofit The Mary and Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community was founded to take ownership of and restore the homes.
In June 2018, the site was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. “Being featured on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list has brought our project a new beginning,” says Tisdale. “Although we have raised awareness of the Mary & Eliza Freeman Houses in nearby African American, preservation, and academic communities over the last decade, attaining the financial support and political will essential to save the houses requires that our project reach a state and national audience quickly—an audience that has [previously] been beyond our reach. It has also served as validation for those who fought to save and restore the houses over the last ten years and more—everyone who volunteered, researched, advocated, testified, donated, taught, and just plain struggled to make the dream of saving the homes, and resurrecting the Little Liberia story, a reality.”
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Along with a capacity grant from Connecticut Humanities, a preservation grant from the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, support from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, and the dedicated research of former city historian Charles Brilvitch, the Freeman Center has gained momentum in its efforts to save the homes.
And in December 2018, the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) announced a $1 million grant to the Mary & Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community. The grant will support the exterior restoration of both structures, as well as the interior restoration of the Eliza Freeman House.
The importance of preservation at the Freeman Houses goes well beyond simply saving historical buildings. “The Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses offers each of us an opportunity to make a real difference—right now at this pivotal time,” explains Tisdale. “We can save the last Liberia community from complete extinction. We can save the Freeman Houses.
And in doing so, we will make sure that the story of this African and Native American communities, intentionally founded, financed, and settled by people of color from around the Atlantic as a place of refuge survives, inspires, and isn’t forgotten again. We can do this by preserving the sole witnesses to this remarkable Atlantic legacy, the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses.”
The homes of Mary and Eliza Freeman represent a look at the success of a diverse community, specifically through the eyes of two women who overcame existing limitations to their own success. This window into the past provides us with an inspired understanding of how progress can be made, one structure—one place—at a time.
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This story has been updated to reflect recent changes to the status of the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses.