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Freedom House was a center of the civil rights movement in Boston. Now it faces demolition.

Education is one of the cornerstones of the Freedom House mission. Joyce Scott taught a first grade class at the Liberation School at the Freedom House in Roxbury on Sep. 12, 1968.Ollie Noonan Jr./Globe Staff/file

A few blocks from Franklin Park is a shabby brick building bordered by a dilapidated metal fence and a vacant lot of scrubby, cracked asphalt. But in the 1950s and for decades afterward, this now unused Grove Hall property was the site of Freedom House, a vital, bustling center of the civil rights movement in Boston.

Now, it appears headed for demolition, scheduled to be replaced by dozens of condominium units in a city where advocates say civil rights landmarks have not been a preservation priority. Although the building was sold in 2020 and the mission of Freedom House continues across Crawford Street in a former library, the prospect of losing the older structure has saddened and disappointed some in the community.


“This building has credence, and it has credibility,” said Louis Elisa, president of the Garrison-Trotter Neighborhood Association. “It’s more than just a building. It was part of our social, political, and emotional life.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Freedom House in 1958. Its founders, Muriel and Otto Snowden, worked relentlessly to better the lives of Black people and other marginalized residents. And its educational mission — both then and now — sought empowerment through learning.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. greeted a group at the reception held at the Freedom House on March 20, 1958. Northeastern University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections

Walk past the former site, and there are still a few clues pointing to the former identity of a place once called Boston’s “Black Pentagon.” The words Freedom House remain above an old, shuttered entrance at 14 Crawford St., and a historical marker from The Bostonian Society tilts to one side.

“Boston is the only place that wants to talk about its history and then blows it up,” said Elisa, who has held positions in federal, state, and city government.

Across the street, inside the walls of the former city library, the current Freedom House staff continues to work with more than 1,000 high school and college students a year, helping them gain access to higher education and a niche in the world to follow.


That work comes through coaches who mentor and help students at Snowden International and Jeremiah Burke high schools progress toward college. It offers students the chance to take high school and college-level courses simultaneously. And its coaches continue working with students who move on to college to help them succeed there.

Civic-engagement projects also figure prominently in the mission. During the height of the pandemic, Freedom House provided more than 50,000 meals to the community.

For Katrina Shaw, executive director, the work of the nonprofit organization transcends any building.

“Our legacy and our work is bigger than any one structure,” Shaw said. “Our legacy is rooted within every student that has passed through our doors. Our work reaches into the classrooms, living rooms, and far corners of the communities we serve.”

The old Freedom House building, which may be demolished.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

That legacy originally took root above a movie theater on nearby Humboldt Avenue, moved to the former Hebrew Teacher College on Crawford Street in 1952, and survived a devastating fire in 1959 that destroyed the grand wooden building that housed much of the organization.

But the adjacent brick building survived, and the Snowdens continued to offer a safe space where the concerns of Black people could be discussed, community self-help efforts gained form and fuel, and Black parents turned for advice during the school integration crisis of the 1970s.

Christopher Martell, a professor of social studies education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said the Snowdens had a “vision of racial justice for the Black community, to mobilize themselves and work across communities to ensure there was educational equity, housing equity, voting equity.”


Martell, who leads a walking tour for students to civil rights sites in the area, has written the Boston Landmarks Commission with concerns about the former Freedom House building.

“I worry with its demolition that its constant reminder of the long and committed work of Boston’s civil rights activists will be lost for all future generations of Bostonians,” Martell wrote. “This building has incredible historical, cultural, and political significance, and its destruction will be regretted by the citizens of Boston in the future.”

At the Freedom House, sophomore college student Juliana Barboza worked at the front lobby reception desk and took a remote Java programming class. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The Landmarks Commission has not received a petition to designate the property as a historic landmark, a city official said.

Shaw brushed aside criticism, such as Elisa’s, which questioned whether the organization tried hard enough to raise donations to save a badly decaying building in need of extensive repairs.

“I think that’s unfair. It says we’re not looking [for donations], and that’s easy to say,” Shaw said. “We needed to find another place that spoke to the mission and allowed us to do what we need to do. We’re making what we believe to be a fiscally sound decision.”

Freedom House sold the former site for $1.5 million in 2020 to Joseph E. Corcoran Special Projects, a development company. Kevin Connors, the project manager, said the proposed 39-unit condominium will be a mix of affordable- and market-rate residences, provide “much-needed home ownership opportunities in the area,” and include a memorial to the original Freedom House.


The memorial will be designed with community input gathered by Freedom House, and the proceeds from the property sale will be used to bolster programming whose funding has come under increasing strain in recent years, Shaw said.

A 90-day delay required by the city to examine alternatives to demolition projects is scheduled to expire late next month.

Gail Snowden, whose parents founded Freedom House in 1949, said that selling the property was the logical, pragmatic, and necessary choice.

“I have been advocating since 2013 to take the building down,” said Snowden, a former executive director.

“The building is really old. It doesn’t meet code,” she said. “The heating system was antiquated, and the windows were not insulated. There was no air-conditioning, and people would break in. Once, they took every computer in the lab.”

The state issued a $1 million challenge grant about a decade ago to help preserve the original structure, but Snowden said Freedom House could not find the funding it needed.

“I really wanted to save it. At the time, it would have cost $6 million to do what we had planned,” she said. “But I just could not raise the money through former students, the community, or philanthropic and corporate donors. We pursued every option that there was.”

In the end, Snowden said, the needs of the ongoing work must take precedence.


“I have the history, and I know the history” of the old building, Snowden said. “I spent my growing-up years there and would go there every day after school. To me, the fact that the work is being carried on across the street — educating kids, community work — that is what is important.

“Civil rights work continues; educating young people continues,” she said. “That’s the mission and the vision and the values.”

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.