Saving the Oldest Homes Built by African Americans in CT

Map of Little Liberia
    The "Freeman" homes in Bridgeport are responsible for really getting me started on the road toward digging for more information about Connecticut's history.  It's a little section of Bridgeport that was called "Little Liberia."  It was named after Liberia -- the oldest country in Africa. 
     The Country was established in 1947, one year before slavery was abolished in Connecticut. The country was established by Americans as a part of the "Colonization Movement." Colonization is what they thought was a humane way to free slaves and end slavery.  Imagine taking someone from the fields of Alabama, Florida, Virginia and just dropping them off in a country that they've never known or seen.  That's an argument for another day-Crazy. 
       But back to "Little Liberia" in Bridgeport. Before being called "Little Liberia," it was also called Ethiope. The name "Little Liberia" is based on oral tradition that the community's inhabitants identified with the new African nation.
Freeman Homes surrounded by industry
     I drove my family down there last weekend just to get a feel for the place and to see it for myself (instead of through the eye of the Internet.) I found the remnants of the once-thriving "Little Liberia" sitting in the  shadow of a coal-fired power plant, an industrial area on the harbor and the sports district (The Arena at Harbor Yard and the baseball field where the Blue Fish play.)  It's also right around the corner from Bridgeport University.

    Joel Freeman was the first African American to purchase land in the area in 1831. His sisters would later own the Freeman homes that are -amazingly-- still standing today.
    African Americans had been living in the neighborhood as early as 1828 when the an "African church" first organized. Early maps point out two African church's the "North African church and the South African church."
    The AME Zion church was built near the corner of Broad and Whiting streets along with the Stratfield Special School for Colored Children.
    Walter’s Memorial AME Zion Church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
    Mary and Eliza Freeman, were two African American sisters born free in Derby. They the two pieces of land right next to each other in 1848 and rented the homes out while they lived and worked in New York. 
At some point a store front was added on to the front of one home
   Eliza moved to Bridgeport around 1855. She died in 1862 with more than $3,000 in real estate holdings. Her sister took those over. When Mary died 20 years later, her properties were worth between $30,000 and $50,000.
       Both homes are now Historic landmarks and are in the process of being restored to be reopened as museums (hopefully.)
      Back in 1998, one surviving resident of Little Liberia talked to the New York Times about life back then.
      Alice Farrar's family moved to Connecticut from Virginia when she was a little girl.
Oldest Surviving home built by African Americans
    She remembered the Freeman homes saying ''When I was a little girl growing up in this neighborhood this wasn't the sort of house you would notice; it was pretty much like all the others,''
      Mrs. Farrar told the students about the 125 people who lived in 70 Little Liberia homes that lined Main Street and the surrounding area a century ago.
'We were all one family and we took care of each other,'' she said. ''No one went hungry. If one household had food, everyone had something to eat. Everyone was an active member of one of the black churches in town, and we had worship and Sunday School every Sunday morning. And I still go to church every Sunday.''
She played the organ at Walter's Memorial every Sunday morning for 60 years.
  ''But we did have some modern things. We had our own version of recycling, we recycled everything, nothing was wasted or thrown away. What was one family's junk was another family's blessings.''
   At the time of that interview, everyone was excited to find the original fireplace, walls and hardwood floors still intact inside the homes. The city's intent was the renovate the homes and turn them into a museum... but after more than 10 years of trying, nothing has come of that idea.

   Sadly, though, time may be running out for the historic homes. Nothing has changed there in years. There have been reports of the buildings being damaged by illegal dumpers, concerns that the roofs may be weakened under the weight of snow. The wood is doing what it does with age,  rot. Some engineers feel the buildings may have to simply be replicated instead of restored. It's sad that this can not be turned into a museum. 
   It is Projects like these that need to be preserved sooner rather than later. There is also a project in Virginia that has stalled the "National Slavery Museum." Something has to be done.


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