Freedom House, an Iconic Civil Rights Hub in Boston, Is Set for Demolition

Nicknamed the “Black Pentagon,” the building served as a meeting place for local racial justice activists

Glass entrance to red brick building Freedom House
Established in 1949, the Freedom House in Boston once served as a meeting place for civil rights activists. Today, the nonprofit center continues its work to improve the lives of Black Americans and other marginalized groups. Tufts University

Once known as the “Black Pentagon,” the building acted as a meeting place for activists fighting for racial equality, including the desegregation of Boston’s schools, reports Carrie Jung for WBUR’s “Consider This.” In the 1950s, Freedom House fielded visits from civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and then-Senator John F. Kennedy. More recently, however, the site has fallen into disrepair.

In 2010, the state of Massachusetts offered a $1 million challenge grant to Freedom House. To use the funds, wrote Meghan E. Irons for the Boston Globe at the time, the owners had to raise an additional $1 million on their own. After fundraising efforts failed to cover the high cost of restoration and maintenance, the center decided to relocate, moving across the street to the former city library. A local land development company bought Freedom House’s original building in 2020 for $1.5 million.

Former Freedom House CEO Gail Snowden—daughter of the organization’s founders, Otto and Muriel Snowden—tells the Globe’s Brian MacQuarrie that she supports the sale and demolition as a pragmatic, necessary choice.

A man and women smiling at camera standing outside of brick building in snow
Otto and Muriel Snowden founded Freedom House in 1949 to improve the lives of African Americans and other marginalized residents of Boston. Northeastern University Archives

“The heating system was antiquated, and the windows were not insulated,” she says. “There was no air conditioning, and people would break in. Once, they took every computer in the lab.”

Though Snowden had “really wanted to save [the structure],” she points out that “it would have cost $6 million to do what we had planned.”

Snowden adds, “I just could not raise the money through former students, the community, or philanthropic and corporate donors. We pursued every option that there was.”

Located in Boston’s Grove Hall neighborhood, the old Freedom House is set to be replaced by mixed-income housing and a memorial honoring the site’s history, reports GBH News. But some residents have argued against the developer’s plan, hoping to make a last-minute attempt to convince the city to preserve the structure, which was built in 1900, as a historic landmark.

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

Martin Luther King shaking hands with a group of elderly black women
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. visited Freedom House in Boston in 1958. Northeastern University Archives

The nonprofit Freedom House has worked to improve the lives of Black Americans and other marginalized people across Boston since its establishment in 1949. Per WBUR, staff established “freedom” schools that helped Black children receive an education prior to the desegregation of Boston’s schools in 1974. The organization also held weddings and funerals. Its headquarters became a community center—a safe place where locals could gather and speak freely about racism and segregation.

Freedom House’s founders, 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,” says Christopher Martell, a social studies education expert at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, to the Globe.

Today, Freedom House continues its efforts to improve lives by helping more than 1,000 high school and college students annually gain access to higher education. At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the nonprofit also provided 50,000 meals to the community.

In December, Martell sent a letter to the Boston Landmarks Commission urging it to preserve 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,” he wrote, per the Globe. “This building has incredible historical, cultural and political significance, and its destruction will be regretted by the citizens of Boston in the future.”

According to GBH News, the commission is currently considering an application to delay the demolition. After identifying two alternatives to tearing down the building and holding a public community meeting, the government agency will convene a formal hearing. The Globe, however, reports that the commission has yet to receive a petition calling for the site’s designation as a historic landmark.

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