Historic ‘Little Liberia’ homes face foreclosure
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Community activists and preservation experts are fighting Bridgeport’s plans to foreclose on two historic homes that once stood in the heart of the city’s “Little Liberia” settlement.
The Freeman houses, said to be among the earliest homes built by black families in Connecticut, were named for two sisters who built them in the mid-1800s.
The small houses, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, became the foundation for a thriving community of free black people known as “Little Liberia.”
Bridgeport plans to foreclose on the vacant homes because it says the owner, Action for Bridgeport Community Development (ABCD), owes $116,000 in delinquent taxes dating back to 1990. The agency refuses to pay the taxes, saying its nonprofit status means its properties are tax-exempt.
The dispute has angered some people in Bridgeport’s black community and prompted some groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to ask Mayor Bill Finch to reconsider.
“This should be inappropriate to anyone regardless of whether they are black or white,” said Craig Kelly, president of the Greater Bridgeport chapter of the NAACP.
A Bridgeport Superior Court judge has entered a foreclosure judgment against ABCD, and the city expected to take title last week. ABCD appealed to the court, and the agency was given 90 days to resolve the dispute with the city.
However, city officials say Bridgeport is legally entitled to levy taxes on the homes even if they are owned by a nonprofit agency.
“There is no question they are taxable. When a nonprofit owns a piece of real estate and does not use it, the real estate becomes taxable. You can’t bank properties,” said Russell Liskov, an associate city attorney who handles foreclosures for the city.
During its heyday, more than three-dozen houses made up “Little Liberia” along with businesses, organizations and churches.
Many of those early residents were Ethiopian seamen who worked on whalers and West Indies schooners. Others worked as shopkeepers, waiters and barbers. The Underground Railroad is said to have had a depot there as it ferried southern slaves to northern communities.
All that remains are the Freeman houses, which are surrounded by a storage warehouse, a five-story brick apartment building and a parking lot.
Charles Tisdale, ABCD’s director and a longtime activist in the black community, said he is outraged by the foreclosure action.
“This is about black history and how we continue that, and use it for our families and children so they can learn from history and from us,” Tisdale said.
Even if ABCD wanted to pay the tax bill, the agency does not have the money, Tisdale said. ABCD receives most of its funding from the federal and state government for a range of social service programs.
Tisdale said long-range plans call for restoring the houses and using them to anchor a community redevelopment project in the neighborhood.
The homes are vacant, surrounded by a security fence. The structures are sound, although in disrepair.
Finch said he’s “committed to preserving the landmark,” but that his administration also plans to pursue every delinquent taxpayer.
“Even agencies like ABCD, which has contributed a great deal to the people of Bridgeport, are expected to pay their taxes,” he said.
If and when the city takes control of the property, it will pursue long-delayed plans to preserve and showcase the historic homes, he said.
“These two historic buildings are rare and irreplaceable evidence of African American life prior to emancipation and should be considered a site of national significance worthy of protection,” said Brent Leggs of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Adrienne Houel, a Bridgeport activist with the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation, said the buildings are among the 10 most endangered historic properties in Connecticut. She said the Connecticut Trust is also urging Finch to back down.