Historic African American Landmarks Threatened
By Ashley Nanco | Online Only | July 23, 2009
In Bridgeport, Conn., the last two surviving houses from a once-booming community of free blacks stand vacant and are rapidly deteriorating. The Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses are among the earliest surviving houses in the state built by African Americans.
"Historically, they are the first houses built in Bridgeport by blacks who were former slaves. They are really unique," says Charles Tisdale, executive director of the Action for Bridgeport Community Development (ABCD), a nonprofit agency that owns the properties.
Built by two sisters in 1848, the houses, one a Greek Revival "half house" and the other an Italianate "double house," are the only remaining traces of the area, known as Little Liberia. During the 19th century, the neighborhood was the center of African American life in Bridgeport and contained 36 buildings built by "free persons of color."
"It's kind of a feat for [Mary and Eliza Freeman] considering the time, their race, and their gender, they made an incredible mark in terms of their finances and what they did with the community," says Linda Feczko, who recently nominated the houses for listing on the National Trust's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. "These are very important houses, and we shouldn't let them go extinct."
The ABCD obtained the houses in 1992, at a time when the City of Bridgeport deemed the property of non-profit organizations exempt from taxes. In 2001, however, the City changed its tax laws, and the ABCD received a $32,000 property tax bill, which was retroactive and included interest.
Now under the weight of an estimated $170,000 in back taxes (which the ABCD says it cannot afford to pay), the organization might be forced to relinquish ownership to the City of Bridgeport.
Both houses stand between commercial buildings and across from an unsightly expanse of empty lots. According to Tisdale, restoring the properties would cost an estimated $500,000.
"We are interested in preserving them because of their historical significance and we feel it could be a magnet to the area," Tisdale says. "It would be an economic engine for that part of the city."
The Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation listed the houses on its "most endangered" list in 1992 and again in 2007. They have also been added to the state and National Register of Historic Places. A group called Friends of the Freeman Houses is currently trying to raise restoration funds to ensure that both structures be preserved for future generations. Tisdale says the houses provide people with a tangible link to the past "not only for African Americans but for all people."
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