By Laura Brummett
Pittsboro, NC – Built in 1811 by a free Black man, the Lewis Freeman House was one of the first buildings in the town of Pittsboro, N.C. Still standing today, it witnessed the horrors of the Civil War. During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, its brick fireplace kept its occupants warm. In the 1960’s, the original wood door opened as the Civil Rights Movement spread across the country.
Now, thanks to renovation and preservation work done by current owner and architect Grimsley Hobbs, the house has witnessed the global Covid-19 pandemic.
It is one of only four remaining dwellings from Pittsboro’s initial settlement in the early 19th century and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The man behind it all, Lewis Freeman, was not only memorable because he was a free Black man in a society where slavery was the law, but also because he was a prominent figure in the area and owned a significant amount of land.
Freeman’s exact trade is unknown, but he had money. He bought his wife and children’s freedom, built his house and owned at least 20 acres of land.
Mary Nettles, president of the Chatham County community branch of the NAACP, has been researching Freeman’s past and ties to Chatham County.
Although there were some free Black men living in the area at the time, she said, it would have been rare for a Black man to own that much land and real estate.
According to ancestry.com, in 1840, just seven years before Freeman’s death, about 8.5% of North Carolina’s total Black population was free.
Grimsley Hobbs has a passion for historic architecture and restoration, and he bought the Freeman house the same day it went up for sale.
He knew that the woman who had owned it, Jane Pyle, had restored part of the house herself.
He finished the job and moved his architectural firm into the house in 2016. His company was also able to get tax credits for the historic preservation work that they did. Pyle’s estate donated at least one lot of Freeman’s original parcel to the town to be made into a Park in Freeman’s honor, Hobbs said. The pandemic has slowed those plans down, but they are still underway.
For Hobbs, the house was small for his architectural firm, so he brought in a log cabin built in 1867 converted into a conference room.
Hobbs likes to be able to share the house with the community. He allows people to hold meetings there for free. “It’s just our turn to look after the house,” he said.
Preserving Freeman’s house has allowed his legacy to inspire others, Nettles said.
“It made me feel that we, as Black people, if you put your mind to it, you can do almost anything,” she said. “It’s history showing how small actions can have big impacts for years to come.”
Nettles’ ancestors arrived in America with the other enslaved people.
“Our history has never really been told,” she said. “Black history is not in the history books. You know, it was told pretty much only in the neighborhoods we lived in.”
Although a lot of Freeman’s story is still unknown, Hobbs is still impressed by what is known.
“He must have been a really remarkable man,” he said. “Living in a time where slavery was the law, and he was a free man. It’s a great Chatham County story, it’s a great American story, how he managed to survive in what must have been a hostile place.”
Beyond the house, Freeman’s legacy lives on.
His grandson, Robert Tanner Freeman, was in Harvard’s first ever dental class, and was the first black person to graduate from dental school in the United States.
His great great grandson, Robert C. Weaver, was the first Black Cabinet member, appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
And his great, great, great grandson, Harold P. Freeman is an Emeritus Professor of Surgery at Columbia University in New York. He has also served as National President of the American Cancer Society in 1988.