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PITTSBORO — A long and rich legacy began more than 200 years ago when Lewis Freeman — a free black man — found his way to Pittsboro as one of the town’s earliest settlers.
The actions he took would set his family and his descendants on a path of achievements that would be written in the history books and recognized throughout the country for their significance.
And now, Pittsboro is working to memorialize that legacy with a park in his honor.
Local architect Grimsley Hobbs is leading the effort to uncover what history about Freeman can be found. Hobbs serves as the vice president of the Chatham Historical Association and owns and operates his business, Hobbs Architects, in Freeman’s former home — the Lewis Freeman house.
“We know some and we’re trying to find out more,” Hobbs said.
It’s unknown whether Lewis Freeman was born a slave or a free man. What is known is Freeman was recorded on the 1800 census as “free” and that he was in Pittsboro by 1810, according to that census. He was likely in his 20s or 30s at that time, according to Lesley Richardson, who in conjunction with Beverly Wiggins — both members of the Chatham Historical Association — is working with Hobbs on the project.
Deeds show that Freeman owned at least 13 parcels in Pittsboro, some of which were located on Salisbury Street and stretched to Fayetteville Street — across from St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, including the site of the current Pittsboro Baptist Church. At the time, those streets were considered the “main streets” in the town, according to the records. He also owned 20 acres elsewhere in the county.
His home, a modest one-room structure at the time, is one of four structures from the time period still remaining in Pittsboro. Over the years it was expanded, but enough of the original structure remained to qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
But the fact that a free black man, who was likely born before the end of the Revolutionary War, was able to be one of the most successful first settlers of Pittsboro is only the beginning of his story.
Freeman also bought his family’s freedom.
In 1814, Freeman purchased his wife, Maria, from Charles J. Williams. As a black man, Freeman wasn’t able to free her, but he could purchase her. It was “not unheard of for black family members to be bought and kept as slaves by other family members in these years,” according to Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, in a letter he wrote to Freeman’s descendants.
Lewis and Maria lived in the home on Salisbury “as man and wife” until her death, according to a probate record from 1868. Together they had a son, Waller Freeman, in 1800, prior to Lewis’ purchase of Maria. As was the law at the time, the status of the mother determined the status of a child — so Waller was born a slave. Waller was purchased from the estate of James Taylor in 1829 by George E. Badger for $388, according to the bill of sale. And one year later, Lewis Freeman purchased his son.
Seven years later, Freeman took what must have been a leap of faith and sold his son to R. Tucker, who took Waller to New York where he secured a deed a manumission, a document making Waller a free man. Waller then returned to Raleigh in an attempt to purchase his own wife, Eliza, and their six children from the same George E. Badger who had owned him previously.
A North Carolina law at the time stated that “it shall not be lawful for any free negro or mulatto to migrate into this State.” Manumission was only available in northern states. So if a slave was able to gain manumission, he or she would not be allowed to return. If found to be in the state, they would have 20 days to leave, risking hefty fines, jail and even being sold back into slavery.
In 1840, Waller was forced to leave North Carolina, based on the writings of Lundsford Lane, another North Carolina slave who bought his freedom and became a vocal opponent of slavery, and in 1842 wrote an autobiography called “The Narrative of Lundsford Lane.” According to Lane, this policy of no return was sometimes “winked at” in Raleigh, depending upon what your connections were. That is likely how Lane and Waller were able to stay and prosper for a few years.
Then things changed.
In his autobiography, Lane recalls his narrow escape from North Carolina because of the “no return” law and writes about Waller suffering a similar fate.
“I should, perhaps, have mentioned that on the same day I received the notice to leave Raleigh, similar notices were presented to two other free colored people, who had been slaves; were trying to purchase their families; and were otherwise in a like situation to myself,” he wrote.
Lane wrote that Waller’s family was “the property of Judge Badger.” Badger was appointed to as Secretary of the Navy following the election of President William Henry Harrison in 1840 and moved to Washington, D.C., taking Waller’s wife and children with him. Waller followed his family there hoping to purchase their freedom. President Harrison’s term was short, since he died of typhoid or pneumonia just 31 days into his presidency. Waller was able to secure $1,800 and purchased his family from Badger in 1842.
Life with freedom
In Washington, Waller made a successful career for himself as a carpenter. The first child of Waller and Eliza to be born free was Robert Tanner Freeman in 1846. Robert Freeman went on to be one of the first of six people to enter Harvard’s dental program. Soon after, in 1869, he became the first African American to graduate with a dental degree in the United States. In 1907, The National Dental Association created the Robert Freeman Dental Society, an organization that promotes “oral health equity among people of color,” which still exists to the present day.
The Harvard School of Dental Medicine honored Robert Freeman last year by hanging a portrait of Freeman alongside portraits of deans and faculty dating back to the school’s founding in 1867.
The legacy continues
Lewis Freeman’s descendants would continue to make significant achievements.
Robert C. Weaver, Robert Freeman’s grandson, would become the first African American appointed to the U.S. Federal Cabinet. On Jan. 13, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Weaver to the position of the secretary of the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. Weaver, a Harvard graduate with multiple degrees, had served as part of the “Black Cabinet” under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He later became the national chairman for the NAACP and was appointed by then-President John F. Kennedy to manage the Housing and Home Finance Agency, which would eventually become the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Weaver was also the author of four books and the one of the original directors of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, which was formed to help New York through financial crisis in the 1970s.
A family’s search for its history
Several of Lewis Freeman’s descendants have been working to discover their roots. Dr. Harold P. Freeman of New York is the great-great-great-grandson of Lewis Freeman. He grew up in segregated Washington, D.C. during the 1940’s and 50’s. After getting his medical degree from Howard University, Dr. Freeman became an attending cancer surgeon at Harlem Hospital, eventually serving as director of surgery until 1999 while also a professor at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. He was appointed the head of the American Cancer Society in 1988 and served as chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel for Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
After founding the National Cancer Institute’s Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities, he went on to focus on patient navigation, the process guiding patients through the continuum of care. The Harold P. Freeman Patient Navigation Institute in New York is an accreditation program for doctors and nurses, one the American College of Surgeons has made a requirement for hospital cancer programs.
While in training at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in the 1960’s, Dr. Freeman saw a Time magazine cover about Robert C. Weaver. Dr. Freeman knew that Weaver was a cousin, though he had never actually met him. In the article, some of the Freeman history was provided, including Weaver’s grandfather, Robert Freeman. Dr. Freeman hadn’t known about his family history and the revelations sparked an interest to learn more, especially over the past 20 years.
It was only seven years ago he learned about Lewis Freeman.
“I was called by a wife of another cousin who said that Lewis might be Waller’s father,” Dr. Freeman said. “I got very interested and visited Pittsboro to see the house.”
He wasn’t the only descendant to make the trip to Pittsboro. Scott Pennington, a New Jersey attorney and great-great-great grandson of Lewis Freeman, was also searching about his family’s history. Pennington’s great-grandmother was Jane Freeman, who married Guy Booth, a slave who escaped a plantation eventually graduating from Howard University.
Pennington also visited Pittsboro several years ago to visit Lewis Freeman’s home.
“It’s one of the most emotional moments of my life, visiting Pittsboro with my cousin, John,” Pennington said. “Touching the chimney, being able to touch the stones from a chimney he likely built, it was almost like shaking his hand.”
Dr. Harold Freeman had a similar experience while visiting the Chatham Community Library.
“I saw a plaque on the wall in the library about Lewis,” he said. “It was very moving to me.”
The search continues to honor a legacy
While we know a great deal about the success and achievements of Lewis Freeman’s descendants, there is still much to learn about the man himself. It’s not known how he made his money or what connections he had to be able to purchase and free his family, something that was not an easy task.
Freeman died in 1846, before ever knowing the greatness his descendants would achieve. He left his land and property to his second wife, Creecy. Sometime after his death, the land was deeded to a man named Thompson, who was the executor of Lewis’ will. According to Lewis’ will, his property was to go to Thompson after Creecy’s death. However, Lewis had previously deeded some of the property to Waller. That land was subject of some dispute, but not much is known about how that happened.
There are records from a military court during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Waller filed to regain the land that by deed Lewis had given to him. There was no documentation to support that there were debts or that it had defaulted. Regardless of a lack of documentation, Waller lost the case in appeal and the family land was lost with it.
But today, a small part of the land that was once owned by Lewis Freeman will be the site of a public park named in his honor. The Lewis Freeman Historic Park will be one-third an acre on the edge of the town’s downtown district on Rectory Street. The land was donated by the estate of Jane Pyle, a noted historian and printer who, as the former owner of the Lewis Freeman house, worked to learn more about Freeman and secure the home’s place on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Two of our leading values are equity and access in our town’s parks,” said Stephanie Bass, chairman of the Pittsboro Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
The park will be geographically accessible to downtown, schools, a senior center and several neighborhoods. And paths and boardwalks will ensure that it is accessible to all ages and abilities.
“And equity shines in the way this park tells an inspiring story that fills out the early picture of our community,” Bass said. “We’re all richer for knowing more about it.”
Over many years, Chatham County Historical Association volunteers have pieced together whatever clues they could find about Lewis Freeman.
“The prospect of a town park on part of the property Freeman owned has inspired us to turn to a researcher who specializes in African-American genealogy to dig deeper and hopefully shed more light on the life of the man that began the legacy,” Hobbs said.
The group is raising funds for that effort through the Chatham Historical Association.
Lewis Freeman’s legacy
The consequences of Lewis Freeman’s life choices created not only African American history, but also a lasting impact on his descendants.
“A lot of Lewis Freeman’s descendants went on to do well professionally,” Pennington said. “Harold’s [Freeman] side are doctors while my side are attorneys, including two of my brothers and my son.”
Though successful, both Pennington and Dr. Freeman noted that both their childhoods were marked with struggle, particularly financial insecurity. Pennington’s mother was ill and he was a high school drop-out; determined to succeed, he joined the Air Force and later went to law school.
“We came from a position of poverty and yet three of us [his siblings] went on to become attorneys,” Pennington said. “That’s why I looked into it. I wondered if it was genetic. The more I look, not only did I find people that were able to excel, but those who can overcome adversity. I can only assume that’s something that’s handed down.”
Dr. Freeman expressed similar feelings.
“That a man like Lewis could do what he did,” Dr. Freeman said. “He conquered a hell of a lot in a lifetime and set it up so his family had a chance for education and to make it to higher levels.
“It’s an America story,” Dr. Freeman said. “It’s reflected in five generations of a family that started before the country was a country. Each generation and what they faced is related to this family continuum and what happened in America itself.”
Lewis Freeman’s living descendants are also pleased that the town of Pittsboro will be honoring that legacy with the Lewis Freeman Historic Park.
“I tell my children, we have something to be proud of,” Dr. Freeman said. “It’s good to see good people in Chatham embracing this, honoring this man who happens to be related to me.”
“This means a piece of my DNA will live on in perpetuity,” Pennington said. “That our family line counts to more people than just those in our family.”
“Lewis Freeman’s legacy is significant,” Hobbs said. “These were impressive people. He had to be intelligent and energetic. He loved his family obviously and had enough sense to operate a system where strict laws governed the interactions of free blacks and slaves. He is one of the lesser known, but more interesting citizens of Pittsboro.”
“No matter who you are, you can make it in this world,” Dr. Freeman said. “Stay on point.”
Reporter Casey Mann can be reached at CaseyMann@Chathamnr.com.