by Stephanie Bass
Like every successful Chatham County farmer and businessman in the 1830s, Lewis Freeman would have been up every day before dawn to tend his considerable array of properties and manage his affairs. After all, one could not get ahead without hard work and long hours, not unless one was born rich.
Lewis Freeman was not born rich. But he was extremely motivated. A free man of color, he was earning and saving money to buy his wife and child out of slavery.
He did succeed in buying them, although they remained classified as slaves. In another transaction he bought at least one other child; the family lived in a one-room house with a loft on West Salisbury Street.
Succeeding in spite of the laws
North Carolina law restricted free black men from buying slaves, but white businessmen in Pittsboro performed the transactions on his behalf– indicating how much trust had developed between Freeman and his white counterparts
While Freeman was said to work in agriculture, the law permitted him to buy, sell and inherit property. And by 1843 when he died at about age 68, Lewis Freeman had become the most successful black settler in Pittsboro, owning 16 town lots and 20 acres in the county.
Donation provides park opportunity
Today on the edge of the bustling Pittsboro Main Street District a new Town park is beginning on land Freeman once owned, in honor of his contributions to the history and early economic development of the town. The park, named Lewis Freeman Historic Park, will be a pleasant green place of respite and inspiration, a shady place for children to play and adults to stroll, within sight of the house where he lived.
The 1/3 acre of park land was donated to the Town of Pittsboro by the family of Jane Pyle, a businesswoman and historian, who lived and had her printing business in the former Freeman residence. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places in North Carolina. It has been expanded over the years, and now is the office for Hobbs Architects, PA.
Conservation and access guide park design
A schematic design of the park by Durham landscape architecture firm Surface 678 is being well received for the way it protects the sensitive environmental aspects of the small site without damaging trees yet allowing maximum visitor access to all sides of the property. A digital flyover gives a feel for how visitors might experience the park from different points of view.
“There were several challenges in this site, but those challenges are what makes the atmosphere of this park unique,” said Jeffrey Christensen, a landscape architect and project manager in the firm.
“Navigating access for people of all abilities around the steep slopes, preserving existing trees, protecting the intermittent creek and understanding potential flooding were all part of the design process. But in the end all those features are what create an enjoyable experience and pleasing landscape.”
In its role as advisors to the Town, the Pittsboro Parks and Recreation Advisory Board (PARAB) has worked with the Town to seek community input in the park design and met with the designers to discuss ways to accommodate concerns. PARAB will continue working with the Town to identify additional support for constructing the park and promote citizen involvement.
Work is still underway to learn more about Freeman, which is a challenge because there are few tax records, church records, town commission records or newspapers prior to 1830, when the town began to grow. The Chatham Historical Association is committed to the project, and has gathered a collection of materials about Freeman. The Association is talking with professional researchers about further possibilities. Contact has also been made with Freeman heirs in New York.
Not many people know the story of Lewis Freeman now, but it is hoped that the historic park named for him will inspire programs and events to celebrate and lift up the diverse cultural and economic history of Pittsboro, as it moves into a new phase of development.