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Last minute plea tries to save Freedom House from demolition


In a residential pocket of Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood, where Roxbury meets Dorchester, an old brick building sits on a fenced lot, its wooden steps twisted and rotted, peeling paint visible through the window frames in rusty metal.

The longtime Freedom House – now a decaying and neglected structure on Crawford Street – has played a vital role in the local civil rights movement, serving as a meeting place for equality and community advocates neighbor from the 1950s.

The Freedom House building at 14 Crawford Street in Roxbury, December 9, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

One mile from the house where Malcolm X spent part of his youth, Freedom House founders Otto and Muriel Snowden appeared before Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, local elected officials , anti-racism activists in Boston and President John F. Kennedy. Decades before a 1974 federal court order, social workers at Freedom House in Roxbury launched a Schools for Freedom movement and protests to fight segregation and racism in Boston public schools.

Currently slated for demolition, the building was constructed in 1900 and is a civil rights era time capsule that the city seems to have forgotten about – although a recent request to delay its destruction begs the question: is it too late to save Freedom House?

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Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. greets a group at a reception for him in March 1958. To the far left is Rev. Walter C. Davis of the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Photograph provided to Northeastern University by Freedom House

Katrina Shaw, executive director of Freedom House, said the nonprofit has spent a decade trying to get funding for renovations to save the old building.

“But people weren’t giving. People didn’t want to give, ”she told GBH News. “People love the idea of ​​Freedom House and what it meant for the city, but no one would really put their money behind it.”

In 2010, the state awarded Freedom House a million dollar challenge grant to restore his old house and renovate a new location across the street, a former branch of the public library where the organization currently operates. The managing director at the time, Gail Snowden, the founders’ daughter, appealed for help to raise funds to preserve the structure.

“Our love for the building has kept us there for so long at a financial cost,” Shaw said. “If we could preserve it, we would. But when it starts to cannibalize your own request to actually do the Freedom House mission, then I think you have to make some tough decisions, just like you would never choose your home over your child.

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Cameraman recording NAACP director Frank Williams speaking in his office at Freedom House, 14 Crawford Street, 1960

Photograph provided to Northeastern University by Freedom House

Last year, Snowden gave his blessing to Shaw and the current directors of Freedom House to sell the building. The historic site has been sold to a development company started by the late John Corcoran, a native of Dorchester, for $ 1.5 million, money that will go to programs at the new location, where the foundation focuses primarily on academic opportunities. , financial and social for university students. . Hoping to innovate in 2023, the developer plans to build mixed-income housing and a memorial on the site to honor the work of the founders.

“This decision was difficult to make and it was not made in a hurry,” said Shaw. “And if anyone wanted to give Freedom House like $ 20 million, I would restore it.” I’ll do that tomorrow. I’ll do it in five minutes. It had always been our plea to be able to fundraise, but we couldn’t. ”

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The new Freedom House building at 5 Crawford Street, Roxbury, December 9, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

The old Freedom House building is just a few blocks from dozens of historic landmarks, Revolutionary War structures, and homes of English settlers and church deacons. It is one of the few monuments from the Civil Rights Era remaining in Boston and a symbol of the struggle for equal rights that may soon be extinguished.

“You know, it’s interesting, nobody called me about this,” Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society, told GBH News. “We respond to roughly the people who raise the issue. Can we save this building? What must we do to save this building? No one asked me that question.

Boston’s current segregation – and the racial wealth gap – leads to the neglect of landmarks in predominantly black neighborhoods like Freedom House, Rushing said.

“People don’t know this story, outside of Roxbury, and the new inhabitants of Roxbury don’t know the story,” he said. “If this building was on the Black Heritage Trail, we would have a lot more publicity about it. ”

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Otto Snowden and a Boston delegation led by Lieutenant Governor Elliot Richardson to and from Selma march for civil rights in Alabama on March 15, 1965.

Photograph provided to Northeastern University by Freedom House

Christopher Martell, a UMass Boston professor who lives in Dorchester, teaches his students about Boston’s educational history through a tour that begins at the former Freedom House, a major hotspot during the violent reaction to school desegregation.

“This is especially important because it tells a much longer story than the Boston buses,” Martell told GBH News. “Most of the students in the suburbs of Boston have no idea of ​​its history. They don’t even know much about the civil rights struggle in Roxbury and Dorchester in the 1950s and 1960s. ”

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A day of freedom, February 26, 1964.

Donation to Northeastern University Archives Dept. by James W. Fraser.

Last month, Martell wrote a letter to the Boston Landmarks Commission, pleading for the Freedom House to be preserved as a protected monument.

Shortly after Martell’s letter, the commission received a request to delay the demolition, citing both the importance of the Freedom House during the civil rights movement and the building’s use as a College of Hebrew teachers. from 1920.

According to a spokesperson for the commission, the commission considered Freedom House to be historically important. Once the municipal agency receives two alternatives to demolition, the applicants hold a public meeting of the community and the commission schedules a formal hearing.

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Mayor Michelle Wu meets with members of the senior organization Goldenaires of Freedom House, December 9, 2021

Tori Bedford / GBH News

A delay from the monuments commission does not guarantee the demolition will be blocked, but it could shed light on the problem, a development Martell hopes will help the city find an alternative solution.

“The Monuments Commission has only limited power,” he said, “but this is a place where advocacy is really important, as it would be more difficult for a developer to simply demolish the building s ‘there was a collective movement to push back this. ”

Shaw seems resigned to say goodbye, knowing that the main mission will continue, regardless of which building it is in.

“The spirit of Freedom House, the work of Freedom House, is here and it continues,” said Shaw, pointing to the bustling office, where students took classes on laptops and served lunch to the Goldenaires of Freedom. House, a program for seniors. Goldenaires coordinator Jumaada Abdal-Khallaq Henry Smith, a native of Roxbury who attended Goldenaires meetings with her mother in the old building, says she is sad to leave the space where she spent much of her time. his childhood.

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Goldenaires Liberty House, 1970

Photograph provided to Northeastern University by Freedom House

“I am a victim of a prominent estate so I cannot show my children where I lived because our house is no longer there,” Abdal-Khallaq Henry Smith told GBH News. “I hate to see the loss of something historic because my mom breathed that air, and all those Goldenaires, you know.” There is something about being able to hold on to something, for your children’s children to see.


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Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.