“Little Liberia” (formerly Ethiope) and the Historic South End
In 1821, a community of “free people of color” began to live and work around the lower reaches of Bridgeport Harbor, the same year that Bridgeport itself came into being. Comprised of freed blacks born in Connecticut, West Indians, Cape Verdeans, 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 Alexander Duncan Hotel, directly next to Eliza Freeman’s house, was the centerpiece of Little Liberia’s seaside resort for prosperous Blacks.
The men of Ethiope were in the main employed as seamen on whalers and West Indies schooners, but others found work as shopkeepers, stevedores, waiters, and barbers. Women became financiers, 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. In the 1900’s the community was affectionately referred to as “Little Liberia.”