Thursday, May 23, 2019
African American Heritage, Neighborhood: South End

Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses

By:  Charles Brilvitch

A community of “free people of color” began to coalesce around the lower reaches of Bridgeport Harbor the same year (1821) that Bridgeport itself came into being.  Comprised of freed blacks born in Connecticut, runaway enslaved persons from southern states, and remnants of Indian tribes from Connecticut and New York State, this village came to be known as “Ethiope” (‘land of men with burned faces’ from the classical Greek).  Located one-half mile to the south of Bridgeport proper, its evolution paralleled that of the larger “white” town:  A church was organized in 1835 (with a second in 1843); a school for the community’s children in 1841, and a free lending library in 1849.  “Ethiopis”—as the inhabitants were known—also established a Masonic lodge and a number of other fraternal organizations.  By 1853 the village’s success was such that a leading African American businessman from New York constructed here a four-story hotel replete with wrap-around verandas and a rooftop belvedere to overlook the harbor and Long Island Sound.

The men of Ethiope were in the main employed as seamen on whalers and West Indies schooners, but others found work as shopkeepers, waiters, and barbers.  Women became laundresses, restaurant owners, and cooks on steamboats and in the homes of Bridgeport’s wealthy—including showman P.T. Barnum.  Evidence points to Ethiope’s having been a major depot on the Underground Railroad, with Shinnecock Indians from Long Island ferrying those fleeing from slavery across the Sound under cover of darkness to the village’s sequestered landing place in a tidal creek.  By 1850 the community came to be known as “Liberia,” evidently reflecting the pride felt by its residents in helping their brethren on the road to freedom.

Mary and Eliza Freeman

 

The South End community was founded and sustained in its formative years by families with the name of Freeman—all probably related—who came from the towns of Stratford, Milford, and Fairfield.  In 1828, when Ethiope was a settlement of but four houses, a man named Joel Freeman came to join them from the town of Derby.  From the outset, Joel was in a position of leadership:  He was listed first among three trustees at the founding of the church in 1835, and it was the “Petition of Joel Freeman” that persuaded the Connecticut General Assembly to allocate funds for a village school in 1841.  Joel Freeman was almost always a witness at community marriages and the signing of secured loans, and was frequently named executor of the estates of the deceased.  Perhaps much of this was the result of his ability to read and write.

Joel’s sisters Eliza (1805-1862) and Mary (1815-1883) remained in Derby tending to their aged parents until their deaths in 1841 and 1843.  By 1844 both sisters were in New York City, where Mary became a chef in a major hotel.  In 1848—the year the railroad from New York to Bridgeport was completed—the sisters bought adjoining lots in Liberia and constructed substantial homes around the corner from Joel’s homestead.  They never married.  By the time of her death, Eliza had assembled more than $3,000 in real estate holdings—at a time when houses sold for $300.  Over the ensuing twenty years Mary parlayed her investments to holdings of “$30,000 to $50,000,” making her one of the wealthiest women in Bridgeport.

Mary and Eliza Freeman overcame significant obstacles as women of color in nineteenth-century America.  The story of their success could serve as inspiration to many.

The Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses

 

Of the three dozen or so houses that made up this long-vanished community, only two survive on their original foundations: the homes of the Freeman sisters.  Surrounded by a storage warehouse complex, a five-story brick apartment house, and expansive parking lot, the houses have somehow come through the last century and a half with relatively few modifications.

Eliza’s residence is a Greek Revival “half house,” three bays in width with a side hallway.  It retains a walnut stair rail, almost Shaker-like in its severe yet elegant simplicity. Most of the major rooms contained mantelpieces of simple Grecian styling.  Although a storefront was cobbled on in 1906 and a fire caused damage in the 1980s, enough survives so that a full restoration can be effected.

Mary’s house is located just to the north and is an Italianate-styled double house or duplex.  It is built over a high brick “English” basement with its main entrances under a second-story piazza.  The double-house design provided for rental income—Mary’s usual tenant was the pastor of Bethel Church.  The interior is virtually intact with simple mantelpieces, four-panel doors with thumblatches, and tiny rooms that seem to shout of Mary’s frugal nature.

The Freeman Houses constitute a unique survival.   They present an opportunity to exhibit a chapter of Connecticut’s history that has for too long been overlooked.  They deserve to be restored for the edification of today’s citizens as well as that of future generations.

Want to learn more about the Mary and Eliza Freeman houses and the area? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:

National Register of Historic Places nomination, Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses

Bridgeport City Directories

  • A History of Connecticut’s Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe, by Charles Brilvitch.  Charleston, S.C.:  History Press, 2007
  • Binder:
    • Mary & Eliza Freeman Houses, Bridgeport, CT:  Structural Condition Survey and Report, prepared by Norden, James F., P.E.; Gibble Norden Champion Brown Consulting Engineers, Old Saybrook, Connecticut, 2003.
    • National Register of Historic Places, Registration Form, Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses, 352-4 and 358-60 Main Street, Bridgeport, CT.  Various authors.
    • Newspaper Clippings, Bridgeport History Center:  “NEIGHBORHOODS – South End (Little Liberia)

Connecticut Census Records, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880

Charles Brilvitch
Charles Brilvitch
Charles Brilvitch is the former Bridgeport City Historian and is the foremost expert on the architectural history of the City of Bridgeport. He is the author of Walking Through History: The Seaports of Black Rock and Southport, and A History of the Golden Hill Paugussett Tribe.