The Historic South End Community
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 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 second in wealth only to legendary showman P.T. Barnum. 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.