By Sarah Sportman and Maisa Tisdale
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc., Spring 2023
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The Mary and Eliza Freeman Houses in Bridgeport are among Connecticut’s most important historic sites for their connections to African American and women’s history. Constructed on adjacent lots in 1848 by sisters Mary and Eliza Freeman, the houses are the last surviving homes from Little Liberia, a prosperous hamlet of free people of color in 19th-century Bridgeport. The two structures provide a direct, material connection between the modern community and Little Liberia.
Since 2010 the Freeman Center for History and Community, Inc. has owned the properties, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The houses will soon undergo an ambitious renovation to preserve the structures and revitalize them as a cultural and educational center. In preparation for the renovations the Connecticut Office of State Archaeology (OSA) is working with the Freeman Center to better understand the archaeological record of the lots. Despite dramatic changes to the above-ground environment of Little Liberia in the last century, the archaeological record of the Freeman lots is remarkably intact, with well-preserved archaeological deposits and cultural features related to the Freeman sisters, their tenants, and later occupants of the houses.
The work completed to date includes ground-penetrating radar (GPR) surveys of the lots and limited archaeological excavations in two parts of the site. In 2020 the OSA, with assistance from volunteers from the Friends of the office of State Archaeology (FOSA), conducted a small excavation in front of Eliza Freeman’s house to expose the original architectural elements of the front porch. There are no 19th-century photographs of the houses, so the work was completed to obtain details of the structure for the renovations. We found a buried wall capped with finished bluestones that created a recessed area around the cellar door under the porch. The wall lines up perfectly with the stonework in front of Mary Freeman’s house, suggesting they were designed to match. We also found a downspout that ran from the porch to an iron pipe on the front corner of the stone wall. Curved stones that fit around the drainpipe were built into the wall, indicating the wall and drainpipe were installed at the same time.
In 2021 we returned to the site to investigate some of the buried features identified in a 2008 GPR survey conducted by now-retired State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni and James Doolittle, a soil scientist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. GPR is a non-invasive, geo-physical survey method that sends a pulse of energy into the ground, where it is reflected or absorbed based on the dielectric properties of the materials below the surface. It produces a representation of the soil profile and shows contrasts in soil composition, breaks in soil profiles, and buried features. GPR is especially useful on historic-period sites where there is potential for buried features like cellar holes, privies, and dry wells. Such features are often stone-lined and/or filled with materials that differ from the surrounding soil matrix, providing clear contrasts in soil profiles. The GPR work at the Freeman Houses identified several buried features in the yards, including rectangular anomalies that may be former structures. The survey data also shows likely intact plowzone and subsoil soil sequences below the pavement that currently covers much of the property, suggesting that much of the historic landscape may be preserved below the modern fill and asphalt.
At the request of the Freeman Center, OSA and FOSA investigated a large, buried anomaly found behind Eliza Freeman’s house in the GPR survey. For two weeks in the summer of 2021, we carefully exposed and excavated the feature, uncovering a section of it from the top down, and then bisected it to see the profile or shape. The feature comprises a linear trench leading away from the back of Eliza’s house and culminating in an unlined, bowl-shaped pit. It was likely dug to provide drainage and was probably filled in when a better option for moving waste water from the house became available. The pit was filled with a variety of materials, including construction debris like brick, mortar, and nails, along with a range of nearly intact household artifacts from the second half of the 19th century.
The ceramics, animal bones, glass bottles, hygiene-related items, and toys provide a tangible connection to the lived experiences of people at the site. Among the most interesting artifacts was a broken, but nearly complete tea pot with a design based on the biblical story of “Rebecca at the Well.” The pattern was incredibly popular between about 1850 and 1900 and would have been found in many Bridgeport homes. The toys, including parts of a “Frozen Charlotte” doll, marbles, a wagon wheel, and part of a cup from a child’s tea set, reflect the presence of the children who once played in the yard . Food-related artifacts like animal bones and beverage and sauce bottles provide insights into foodways at the site. Analyzed and interpreted within the historical context of Little Liberia and later 19th-century Bridgeport, the material culture from the sites will help to inform the interior design and interpretation of the Freeman houses and provide a powerful medium for public education.
Sarah Sportman is the Connecticut State Archaeologist and an Assistant Extension Professor at the University of Connecticut.
Maisa Tisdale is the President of the Mary and Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The Mellon Foundation, through the Foundation’s Humanities in Place program, has awarded The Mary & Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community a one million dollar grant, which will support organizational capacity, a planning and feasibility study, and related public cultural heritage programming.
For more information about Mary and Eliza Freeman and their houses visit The Mary and Eliza Freeman Center for History and Community at freemancenterbpt.org .
And listen to the Grating the Nutmeg podcast episode