GLOUCESTER — Before Wellspring House became a nonprofit to help homeless families get back on their feet, the historic building was home to a prominent Black family whose patriarch bought his freedom from slavery.
Now, as part of the city’s 400th anniversary celebration, the house is home to an exhibit honoring three generations of the Freeman family, complete with a restored original front entrance: wooden double doors, painted black and adorned with metal latches and a simple knocker.
“History Lives Here,” was unveiled during Wellspring’s recent annual spring celebration. The permanent installation, which includes six panels, will soon be regularly open to the public.
Wellspring staff, researchers, and community members pieced together the Freeman family’s story through deeds, marriage certificates, censuses, and genealogy websites, among other records.
“We’re helping to tell historical stories that have not yet been told,” said Wellspring executive director Melissa Dimond. “Our hope is that other landowners will find this interesting. ... We all can know a lot more about Black history than we do.”
Little was initially known about the Freemans outside of speculative stories and old photos passed down from the home’s previous owner.
Wellspring found accomplished Freemans in each generation, starting with a man named Robin who bought his freedom from slavery in 1769 and gave himself the surname “Freeman.”
The family would go on to become successful livestock farmers for three generations.
The house on Essex Avenue was purchased in 1826 by his son, Robert Freeman Sr., who had by then become the largest landowner in the neighborhood now called Magnolia.
His grandson, Robert Freeman III, became Salem’s first Black police officer in 1886, the exhibit said. His great-granddaughter, Hattie Freeman Johnson, was described in a 1928 Daily Boston Globe article as a woman of “culture and refinement.”
Mary Hardwick, a Wellspring community liaison, said she wants the family to get the recognition they deserve.
“Someone had to tell the story of the Freemans,” Hardwick said. “Robin was buying his freedom before it was thought of ... Robert Freeman was in the nucleus of all these white landowners.”
Hardwick said Wellspring is working with the city to name the intersection of Essex and Magnolia avenues in honor of the Freemans. Wellspring also helped restore the decaying headstones of some family members buried at the nearby Bray Cemetery, she said.
Wellspring is continuing to map out the Freeman family tree and has used genealogy websites to speak with several descendants, Hardwick said.
“We’re hoping they will come [visit] when they’re ready,” Hardwick said.
The wood-framed house, built in 1709, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as an example of First Period architecture. The home, at the top of Little River, has been expanded several times over the years.
Wellspring for many years operated a family shelter there, before expanding into other homeless prevention services, such as job training and adult basic education.
The Freeman family exhibit fills two rooms in the original structure. Visitors stand on wide wooden floorboards, and look up at the exposed beam ceilings in space once occupied by the Freemans.
Roopika Risam, a researcher who worked on Wellspring’s project and an associate professor of humanities and media at Dartmouth College, said the Freeman family’s history was “hiding in plain sight.”
“All of us can be part of recovering the stories of our cities and towns that haven’t been told,” Risam said at the exhibit’s opening. “Telling these stories is essential to ensuring that everyone who lives here can see themselves reflected in our histories.”
Wellspring began the research project in 2020, Dimond said, amid the Black Lives Matter movement and the national conversation about racial equity. Wellspring is developing a “toolkit” for others interested in conducting similar historical research, Dimond said.
“We decided to start first with ourselves, and to make a commitment to understand our organization’s history better, and the history of this location,” Dimond said. “This is all of our history, and we all can play a role in learning more.”
James Cook, a historian and Gloucester resident who volunteered to help with Wellspring’s research, said there are still details about the Freemans and the city’s history that have yet to be uncovered.
“There was all this interconnected stuff,” said Cook, a cofounder of the Magnolia Historical Society. “That’s what gets me excited. Oh, there’s so much more.”