Saving Bridgeport's Freeman Houses

With a recent boost, the chances for revival for these Bridgeport homes look strong.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced that the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses were among the nation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.  The annual list spotlights important examples of our nation’s architectural and cultural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage. What’s more, the National Trust has announced a $50,000 grant from the inaugural round of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

This attention comes at the right time.  Vacant since the early 1980s, the Houses are in dire need of stabilization and repair.  Over the past ten years, we have partnered with Connecticut Humanities and the State Historic Preservation Office to offer technical assistance, grant funding, and advocacy support for these extraordinary pieces of Connecticut history.  We will continue that support by helping to administer a $9,999 capacity grant for the Mary and Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community, from Connecticut Humanities. Ultimately, we hope to help the Freeman Center transform the buildings into an historic site with museum, research, and education components.

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The Freeman Houses were built in the late 1840s by sisters Mary and Eliza Freeman in the thriving community of free African and Native Americans on Bridgeport Harbor known as “Little Liberia.” Half a mile south of the traditional center of Bridgeport, the village grew over the nineteenth century as an independent settlement complete with church (organized in 1835), school (1841), free library (1849), fraternal organizations, and seaside hotel (1853). Inhabitants of the community included freed blacks born in Connecticut, runaway enslaved persons from the South, and members of Native American tribes.

Many families with the last name of Freeman settled in Little Liberia. Joel Freeman, from the town of Derby, settled there in 1828. His sisters Eliza (1805-1862) and Mary (1815-1883) bought adjoining lots in Little Liberia in 1848. When Eliza died, she held over $3,000 in real estate, an incredible sum given that houses at the time sold for $300. During Mary’s lifetime, she held assets of up to $50,000, making her second in wealth only to fellow Bridgeport resident P.T. Barnum.

Today, the Freeman sisters’ homes are the last remaining buildings from this historic settlement.  The story of their success could inspire many struggling to overcome significant obstacles.   

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