Freedom House receives $1 million lifeline from state

Social action group to rebuild

By Meghan E. Irons
Globe Staff / November 18, 2010

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In its prime, it was known as the Black Pentagon, a key gathering place for African-Americans who huddled in the group’s old brick building over decades to tackle problems of the day — from the racially charged fight over busing to more recent concerns about educating youth.

But after 61 years, Freedom House finds itself in a changed world, struggling in a sea of similar agencies, struggling to be recognized as a force — and struggling to fix its leaky foundation.

Yesterday, the Patrick administration gave the local civil rights icon a lifeline in the form of a $1 million challenge grant to help the Grove Hall agency rebuild. The money is from MassDevelopment’s Community Service Loan Fund, launched last year to provide low-cost loans and grants to help service agencies renovate their aging facilities.

“The Freedom House is important,’’ Patrick said at the center yesterday, recalling its deep roots in Boston. “It’s important historically, but it’s also important in the here and now. . . . We need programs and opportunities for programming in this community, as we do in communities all over the Commonwealth.’’

Freedom House’s chief executive, Gail Snowden, said the money will be used to rebuild its decaying Crawford Street building and erect a new facility, a project estimated at $3 million. Freedom House must raise at least another $1 million on its own to use the state grant.

“Even though we’ve been around for 60 years, we are looking forward to being a 21st-century organization, and we need a 21st-century building,’’ said Snowden, whose parents founded Freedom House in 1949. “The new building will give us much greater visibility, and it will be much easier for the community to access us and our programs.’’

Freedom House was founded in the Roxbury living room of black social workers Otto and Muriel Snowden. The couple had called together a small group of community leaders to form an organization to centralize efforts to get neighborhood improvements, better schools, and racial harmony.

They were chipping at the walls that kept cultures divided. With money they raised, Freedom House leaders bought the Crawford Street facility in 1952. It had previously been a Baptist church, a synagogue, and the site of Hebrew College. In 1960, a fire ripped through a large chunk of the building, and the current Crawford Street facility was rebuilt a year later.

Fully back in business, Freedom House concentrated on improving relations between blacks and Jews in Roxbury, hosting lectures, coffee hours, and Sunday forums. At the height of urban renewal, the center bought and repaired run-down properties as a model for neighborhood renovation. In 1974, after US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled that Boston must racially integrate its schools, Freedom House launched hot lines and data centers to better inform parents and help keep the peace.

Political leaders and national activists made a point to stop there.

“This was a place where people came to mobilize, organize, and fight all kinds of battles,’’ said Hubie Jones, a former Boston University dean who in 2008 helped prod the governor to steer aid to nonprofits struggling to repair and rebuild aging facilities. “It was a place where black speakers and leaders came from all over the country . . . to speak and energize the community.’’

Freedom House’s focus shifted over time to education issues, such as computer literacy and college preparation.

After the Snowdens died — Muriel in 1988 and Otto in 1995 — the center declined. Today, Freedom House serves hundreds in Grove Hall, which straddles the Roxbury-Dorchester line. More than 200 children head there daily to work in the computer lab, a seniors group meets there weekly, and groups hold events in the community room.

Snowden said it was difficult to decide to tear down the building her parents had used for so many years and where she spent a good deal of her childhood. But the current building is decaying and would cost more than $5 million to renovate, she said. She is now turning to people who have used the center or benefited from its programs to make donations to help restore it.

“I don’t think this is a lot of money to raise,’’ she said. “There are many people who have ties to Freedom House. I always hear people say that I came to Freedom House or I was served at Freedom House, so I need people to come to ‘the house’ and help us do this.’’

Meghan Irons can be reached at