One day a few years back, after the situation had become unbearable, the students were called to an assembly, and Freeman took the stage. A fit, powerfully built black man near 60, he’s known as “The Buddha” because of the silent way he walks. He wore a finely tailored suit and a hat. He spoke in a round, resonant, soothing voice. There was no need to worry, Freeman told the children. Plans were under way for an expansion. Soon the school would have amenities that even kids in suburban schools would envy. Indoor tennis courts. A track. A pool. It was going to be better than ever.
According to Rogers, “The children would raise their hand and ask, ‘Can we have that? And can we have that?’ ‘Oh, sure, you can have that.’ And when? ‘Ooooooh, soon.’ And the kids, they were so excited.”
The promised renovation never happened. No pool, no indoor track, only escalating chaos until the School Reform Commission finally caught on in 2008 and held hearings. The commission eventually declined to renew Freeman’s charter, shutting down the school.
Freeman didn’t blink. The school was small potatoes, a tiny part of his empire. Directly or indirectly, Freeman has controlled at least 30 different companies concentrated in the city’s Northwest. As recently as 2007, he was president of at least 16 of the companies. Mostly nonprofits, they’ve got these impenetrable names — the Northwest Education Development Corporation; Urban Community Health Systems, Inc. Together, they’re known as “Germantown Settlement.”
In its most boiled-down form, Settlement is a social agency plus a housing company. Over the years, the agency side has provided a basket of services to truant children, foster children, the elderly, the poor, the HIV-infected, new mothers, families, and people facing foreclosure.
There are many devoted people who have worked at Settlement and provided quality services, but Freeman has never been able to retain the most effective employees — he ends up stiffing them on their paychecks or their health insurance, or he lays them off, or else they simply quit in disgust, and service goes downhill. Settlement is the mother ship, the brand name; it’s the place where Freeman draws his salary — $156,000 in 2006 — and where he parks his large, late-model silver Mercedes-Benz, in the spot that says RESERVED FOR GERMANTOWN SETTLEMENT CEO. (Freeman’s wife, Emma Cummings-Freeman, is a VP at Settlement, in charge of its Department of Health and Human Services; she drives a gold Cadillac.) Freeman is also president and CEO of the Greater Germantown Housing and Development Corporation, or GGHDC, which as of 2006, the last time Freeman gave a full inventory to the city, owned at least 372 units of multi-family and tax-credit housing, 127 units of senior housing, and 170,500 square feet of retail space that stretched across a two-mile swath of the city. (Reached on his cell phone, Freeman asked me to send him questions via e-mail, but he didn’t reply to my subsequent e-mail, and his lawyers didn’t return my repeated calls.)