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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Grandfather's Legacy

"Yours truly, for truth and right." A.N. FREEMAN

Amos N. Freeman and wife, grandparents of the artist, Laura Wheeler Waring
Amos N. Freeman and Christiana Williams Freeman

If you’ve studied the history of free blacks in the 19th century north, you may have come across the name of a charismatic Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Amos Noë Freeman. Freeman was the first full-time pastor of the Abyssinian Meeting House, the first church founded by African Americans in Portland, Maine in 1828. (I hadn’t previously associated African Americans with Maine, but we’ve been there for awhile.) Freeman was an active participant in the Negro conventions movement and one of the many heroes of the Underground Railroad. An ardent activist on behalf of his race, a lifelong devotee of education, the temperance movement, and the global abolition of people of color, Freeman, at the time of his death, was retired pastor emeritus of Brooklyn’s thriving Siloam Presbyterian Church, and universally beloved by the community. Amos Noë Freeman was also Laura Wheeler Waring’s maternal grandfather. I’ll focus here on aspects of Freeman’s personal story and legacy.

Laura Wheeler was six years old when the Reverend Amos Noë Freeman, died at his home in the Fort Green section of Brooklyn, New York on July 28th, 1893. Old and frail at age 84, Reverend Freeman, apparently had eaten something that did not agree with him, felt poorly, lingered a week, and then died. Laura's mother, Mary Christiana, would have been inconsolable, having recently lost an infant son and now only four months later, her father, whom she adored. Robert Wheeler, Mary Christiana's husband, was also greatly saddened. He would later write a brief narrative of his father-in-law's life that would leave no doubt about his respect and admiration for the man.

Laura, along with her 10-year-old sister, Mary Alice or Kit, and brother, Arthur, just three, would have traveled with their grieving parents by steamboat from Hartford, Connecticut to New York to attend the funeral of her esteemed grandfather, lauded in the local press as "an earnest preacher, a good friend to the poor and needy, a counselor to the young, a moulder of public opinion for the race, and a forceful and elegant leader."

Amos Noë Freeman was born in 1809 in the tiny village of Rahway, Essex County, New Jersey, which at that time had a population of about 750 free colored persons and 1,129 slaves. Though born into the comparatively fortunate circumstances of a free person of color, Amos Freeman's origins were otherwise humble. His parentage was purportedly of a negro father and a Native American mother, but Amos admitted to knowing nothing more about either of them. Orphaned at an early age, he grew up attending the segregated pews of Rahway's Presbyterian church, an experience that would shape his entire life.

On his own at age 16, Amos made his way from Rahway across the river and to New York's lower Manhattan, home to a concentration of free colored people and a growing number of institutions established to serve them. There he affiliated with the First Colored Presbyterian Church, founded in 1822 by the evangelist and journalist, Samuel Cornish.

Some years later, Amos attended Oneida Institute in upstate New York. Oneida’s founder, the white abolitionist Presbyterian clergyman, Beriah Green, would state that "The elevation of the colored people to their proper position in society” was a core tenet of the school.

Oneida operated on the model of a boarding school, comprising high school courses as well as a post-secondary or college curriculum within a culture of religion and service. Oberlin Collegiate Institute, founded six years later in Ohio, and becoming Oberlin College in 1850, basically followed the same model, and Amos would send two of his three daughters there, including Mary Christiana Freeman, Laura Wheeler's mother. The prep school-college-boarding school model would continue to be widely replicated into the 20th century, including at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and the Institute for Colored Youth, later Cheyney Normal School, then Cheyney State College, in Pennsylvania. As important as Oneida was to Amos Freeman, and Oberlin was to his daughter, Cheyney Normal School would be to Freeman’s granddaughter, Laura Wheeler Waring. Laura would find at Cheyney not only a lifelong profession as an art teacher, but a longtime home among a tightly knit group of familial colleagues with whom she shared a commitment to education and social uplift.

As for Reverend Freeman, after teaching at the colored public school in Newark, NJ, and pastoral stints at churches in Portland and in Hartford during the civil war, he returned to Brooklyn and to Siloam Presbyterian, where he reigned for twenty-three years. He moved his wife and three daughters into a well-appointed brownstone at 33 Fleet Street, among the close-knit, upwardly mobile colored community in Fort Greene. Over the years, he would purchase several other houses. Property ownership was another of his priorities, and one about which he preached strenuously, as it was initially one of the requirements for Black men seeking to exercise the right to vote. You can see by his will that he was a man of considerable means when he died.

Last Will and Testament of Rev. Freeman, grandfather of the artist, Laura Wheeler Waring
Last Will and Testament of Amos N. Freeman

Reverend Freeman was a founding member of the Evangelical Association of Colored Presbyterian and Congregational Churches, a black congress which operated within the white Presbytery. Over the years, he became skilled at negotiating with the general white membership and was successful in personally gaining their acceptance. In 1870, he became the first colored man to serve as stated clerk to the Brooklyn Presbytery; in 1886 he was elected moderator. Upon his retirement from Siloam, Pastor Emeritus Reverend Amos N. Freeman received a yearly pension of $100 from his grateful congregation, and an additional one hundred dollars annually from the general Presbytery of Brooklyn.

Laura's grandmother, Christiana Williams Freeman, was an active partner with her husband throughout his storied career. Her own upbringing was a curious blend of servitude and refinement. Unlike her husband, Christiana knew something of her parentage, at least enough to pass on a plausible story to her grandchildren. It is said that her father was Philip Henry Livingston, of Scotch and Dutch descent, scion of an old upstate New York family active in civic affairs and the lucrative slave trade, and grandson of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Livingston had spent much of his early life in Jamaica, on the family plantation. Back in the states, Christiana and her mother lived as domestic servants in the Livingston family's household at 704 Broadway in New York, only a few blocks from Washington Square. Hence, Christiana grew up having a familiarity with the decor, dress, and mannerisms exhibited by the upper classes. Educated in New York’s African Free School, she was acutely interested in the issues facing her people and was a most suitable mate for a renowned community leader.

Amos Noë Freeman bequeathed to his granddaughter the themes of self-determination and using one's natural and acquired skills for the betterment of the race. His legacy of “firsts,” his commitment to education, ability to position himself strategically, and to establish relationships that would prove beneficial both personally and professionally would be demonstrated by Laura Wheeler Waring throughout her career as a teacher and creator of positive racial images in art.

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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