Something about the houses caught Charles Brilvitch’s eye.
It was 1980 and Brilvitch, who would go on to become Bridgeport’s city historian, was dropping his clothes off at a dry cleaner. The shop was cobbled onto the front of an old house. Brilvitch noticed the house next door was the same style and just as old. He began to investigate.
Ultimately, he and others discovered the houses were the last remnants of a long-forgotten community — one unlike any other in Connecticut, and possibly the world.
Built in 1848 by sisters Mary and Eliza Freeman, the Freeman Houses are the last original surviving structures of a community of free blacks and Native Americans known as Liberia and later Little Liberia. It thrived for much of the 19th century, and at its height consisted of dozens of buildings and businesses including a school, two churches, a Masonic lodge and even a four-story hotel that was Bridgeport’s tallest building and first seaside tourist attraction. The community also attracted the attention of luminaries such as Frederick Douglass and served as an Underground Railroad destination.
“This was a place where you could come live with your family in the open and use your God-given talents and prosper,” says Maisa Tisdale, president of the Mary & Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community, a nonprofit working to restore the houses. “During this time when 90 percent of all people of African descent in this country were in shackles and Native American communities had been decimated, you had this community that was living free and ushering other people to freedom.”
Despite the history they represent, the houses are in dramatic disrepair and in danger both from the ravages of time and the shortsightedness of city policies. They were named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999 and are part of Connecticut’s Freedom Trail, but remain so imperiled that in June they were designated one of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
In 2008 the houses were scheduled for demolition by the city, but were saved by community members aware of their significance. Ownership of the houses was transferred to the Mary & Eliza Freeman Center in 2010.
Tisdale, whose ancestors lived in the community, says the “most endangered” designation will help bring awareness to the houses and raise the estimated $1.6 million necessary to restore them. The organization’s goal is to create a museum and community-gathering point on the site.
Todd Levine, a historian with the State Historic Preservation Office, which oversees the Freedom Trail, says the site is “a symbol of hope, it’s a symbol of equality, so we definitely want to see the buildings put back in service.”
The houses are thought to be structurally sound, but are not much to look at today. They sit across the street from the parking lot for the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Ferry, their long-faded paint and plywood-boarded windows glimpsed through the chain-link fence in front of them. The whole scene is framed by the P.J. Murphy Moving & Storage building and the striped smokestack of a nearby power plant, both of which tower over the diminutive houses.
Yet Tisdale sees through the faded paint and time-worn wood.
“There is beauty in things that are old even before they’re restored because we know that they tell a story,” she says.
First settled in the 1820s, the community in the city’s South End was known as Ethiope by outsiders, but those within referred to it as Liberia (“a free land”). The South End, about a half-mile south of the city’s “white” town, was affordable because whites believed it was unhealthy to live near the sea, Tisdale says. Those who came to Little Liberia saw the potential of the area and created a settlement spiritually and economically linked to the sea. Full-submersion baptisms were performed in the waters of Long Island Sound and the men found work on ships.
“The sea was the only place where black men could make the same amount of money as white men,” Tisdale says.
The women in the community worked as laundresses, restaurant owners and cooks. The Freeman sisters, who were born in Derby and never married, invested in properties with great savviness. By her death, Mary had between $30,000 and $50,000 in holdings, making her Bridgeport’s second-richest citizen, trailing only the legendary P.T. Barnum.
As the 1900s approached, Bridgeport’s waterfront became increasingly industrialized and Little Liberia disappeared, but one of the community’s churches, the Walters Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church, remains in Bridgeport.
Of late, progress toward restoring the homes has been made. A few years ago, the new addition that had housed the laundry shop that inspired Brilvitch’s research in 1980 was removed and the site partially excavated. There was a wealth of archaeological finds including a pipe, bottles and buttons made from seashells. Currently an exhibit featuring recently discovered artifacts, alongside artwork inspired by Little Liberia, is on display at Burt Chernow Galleries at Housatonic Valley Community College in Bridgeport.
This summer the Mary & Eliza Freeman Center received a $50,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a $9,999 grant from Connecticut Humanities.
“The fact that people are homeowners, that they’re business owners, that they’re supporting one another, that they’re building churches, that they have libraries, it’s quite extraordinary for the time period,” says Jason Mancini, executive director of Connecticut Humanities. “I can’t think of any other place in Connecticut where that’s really happening in such a substantive way.”