On June 26, Bridgeport found itself in the historic preservation spotlight when the Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses — the last surviving properties from a pre-Civil War community known as Little Liberia — were listed among the 11 most endangered historic places for 2018 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Maisa Tisdale, president and CEO of the Mary and Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community, maintains that this corner of Fairfield County history has been obscure for too many years.
“The vast majority of people don’t know about it,” said Tisdale. “That has been a challenge for us in terms of getting support for the restoration of the houses. Being on the list was so important because it elevated the whole story to a national level.”
The Little Liberia story can be traced to the early 1820s, when free African-Americans created their own village in what is today’s South End of Bridgeport. Initially called Ethiope by the wider white society, the residents renamed their community Little Liberia in 1850 as a tribute to Liberia, which gained independence in 1847 as the first African republic.
From an early 19th century economic viewpoint, Little Liberia was extraordinary: the community offered black-owned businesses and homes, two churches and a library — even a four-story hotel that catered to a black clientele. Gender barriers were being broken along with racial ones: Mary and Eliza Freeman were unmarried sisters who owned their residences and were active in the local real estate market.
Even more remarkable for that era was the community’s relationship with the neighboring native population: members of the Paugussett Indians intermarried with the African-Americans of Little Liberia, and the community was given free access to the tribe’s nearby orchards.
Many of the men in Little Liberia were seafarers and they used their maritime travels to promote the community. “They sailed to other free black communities and asked for investments and for people to come settle here,” Tisdale said, adding that black slaves escaping via the Underground Railroad found sanctuary in Little Liberia.
“The community was very much involved in ushering people to freedom, and the way they did it was by hiding them in plain sight,” she said. “After all, it was a community of all black people — who would know if there were a few more black people?”
In the post-Civil War era, however, Little Liberia went into decline. The Panic of 1873 and the resulting six-year economic depression forced many businesses to close and homeowners to sell their properties. Real estate developers replaced the bucolic community with factories and tenement housing for European immigrants. Little Liberia disappeared by the dawn of the 20th century and would have been forgotten forever had it not been for a former Bridgeport city historian.
“In 1980, Charles Brilvitch was doing inventory of architecture to find out what Bridgeport had to offer to bring funding or some kind of development, because the city needed help back then,” Tisdale explained. “He wanted to see what every neighborhood had in terms of architecture, so he went to the South End on foot.
“He hadn’t seen the Freeman Houses,” she continued, “but he knew there was a dry cleaner in the neighborhood and he wanted to have his pants hemmed. He stopped in at this Cuban tailor-cleaner and he noticed that his store was cobbled on to the front of what looked like a really, really old house. And he was like, ‘Wow, there are two houses right next to each other — that’s really unusual.’”
Brilvitch’s research was initially frustrating, as city records from the pre-Civil War era did not list the names of the African-American homeowners of the area and census data merely identified the properties with the abbreviation “Col.” — short for “colored.”
As Brilvitch began to piece together the story of Little Liberia, he concluded the Freeman Houses were the last surviving remnants of that community. The properties at 352-4 and 358-60 Main St. were sold by the Freeman family in the 1890s and the subsequent owners allowed them to deteriorate over time.
By 1992, the properties had no residential value and were donated to ABCD Inc., a nonprofit social service agency for the poor that was run by Tisdale’s uncle, Charles Tisdale. In 2007, the city of Bridgeport foreclosed on the houses, claiming that ABCD was delinquent in paying property taxes. As part of a 2009 settlement with the city, ABCD transferred ownership of the Freeman Houses to the newly formed Mary and Eliza Freeman Center.
While some grant-funded restorative and archeological work has taken place since the settlement, the Freeman Houses are still fenced off and closed to the public. “I never expected the restoration would take so long,” Tisdale said.
Part of the problem was that, “When the story first emerged, people couldn’t believe it,” Tisdale said. “There was someone at the state who was talking to me about grants who said, ‘There are people who are never going to accept this story — it is just counter to how we depict black people and native people in the 1800s.’”
Also, complicating matters has been a shortage of visual elements, as there are no photographs of Little Liberia, the Freeman sisters or their houses when they were in their prime.
For the past year, Tisdale has presented a special exhibit at the Housatonic Museum of Art at Housatonic Community College that offers original paintings celebrating Little Liberia with artifacts recovered from the Freeman Houses and displays charting the community’s peak years.
While those provide a visual display of Little Liberia’s history, Tisdale’s ultimate goal is to establish a standalone educational center devoted to the subject.
She noted that the attention gained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation listing has resulted in inquiries from across the country. On July 6, the nonprofit was awarded a $50,000 grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund as part of its inaugural grant cycle endeavor. Tisdale hopes that funding will help in the beautification of the houses’ street-facing exteriors.
While the houses are certainly in need of restoration, Tisdale bristles when people refer to the Freeman Houses as “ramshackle.”
“We find beauty in these buildings because of the history they have,” she insisted.