Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall

Freeman, a.k.a. The Buddha, was supposedly rebuilding Germantown. And even though project after project failed, political heavyweights—from Ed Rendell to Bob Brady to Michael Nutter—kept giving him our money. Lots and lots of our money.

This story, however, is not simply about one bad apple. It’s about a system that understands it’s eating a bad apple and keeps eating it anyway. Tax break by tax break, contract by contract, across administrations, the city, state and federal governments created a monster. They knew it. The proof is in their own documents and e-mails, which I obtained via Right to Know and the Freedom of Information Act. In April, Settlement and its housing company declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. All of that money went to nothing. And no one wants to talk about it.

In August, I received a sweetly and cunningly oblivious e-mail from former mayor John Street. “I would love to help you with your story but I’m on vacation,” he wrote. “(Hawaii is a great place.) … I was saddened to hear of the organizations [sic] continued problems. Has something else happened?” It was as if we were discussing a mutual acquaintance of ours, someone we both remembered fondly, like an old college professor, instead of a corporation that had devastated a neighborhood. “Hopefully,” Street wrote, “[Settlement] is doing better now.”

Given that Freeman was on John Street’s transition team when he was elected mayor in 1999, this coyness is disturbing. To say the least.

, a typewritten memo delivered to a white man one day. “YOUNG AFRO AMERICAN,” it said on top (all spelling and grammar [sic]). “We have self help program designed to cater the needs of the Black community. Those functions will be handled by Black People so that we can begin to have a self determind attitude for Communities. We feel that these white organized and operated community programs have delt dishonestly with the Black Community.”

The year was 1968, and the white man in question was the president of a social agency called Germantown Settlement. Originally founded by Quaker women in 1884 as a free kindergarten for the children of Irish mill hands, Settlement grew into a more comprehensive operation. It ran a library, and activities for kids, and organized the community to advocate for better housing. But by the ’60s, its white-immigrant clientele had mostly fled Germantown, and now Settlement was a colonial outpost: white people allocating resources to black people. And some of these young black people—teens—were suddenly aflame with a desire for change.

A 19-year-old Emanuel Freeman was one of them. His signature can be seen on subsequent communications from groups close to the Young Afro Americans. He was a kid from the Brickyard neighborhood, cradle of an eponymous street gang.

All over the city and the country, Afro-Centrism was sweeping black neighborhoods; what made Germantown’s movement especially potent was its founder, David Richardson. Six-foot-three and a former gang leader himself, Richardson used to walk the streets in a dashiki, talking to gang kids like Freeman, preaching the virtues of politics and the pointlessness of the knife and the gun. Pretty soon, Richardson had organized Freeman and his friends into the “Young Progressives,” a grass-roots political base that helped elect Richardson to the state assembly in 1972. “They weren’t gangbangers anymore,” Debra White-Roberts told me. “They were legit.”

Freeman’s skill was the word. Persuasion. He wasn’t eloquent, exactly, but he had an inborn sense of how to win over a room, and no one had a stronger command of the language of social uplift: “We must reorganize the community, block by block and person by person,” he once wrote in a letter to an adversary. “Much of the challenge before us is the development of the very people who find themselves caught in the middle of a life devoid of hope.” Black people deferred to him — he was an intimidating presence in private, aloof, frosty — and white people respected his entrepreneurial vigor, good posture, and strong links with black churches.

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  • Alexander

    This article was superbly written, informative and revealing in the simple fact that Philly remains a very corrupt and close-knit city. And we thought that we had progressed from here!

    • Shirley Harrison

      It’s unfortunate, that the old regime will remain in power, hidden by a maze of corruption. and maleficent cronies. Emanuel took advantage of the trust, friendship, and respect, a neighborhood had for the Freeman family. He was raised by gospel singers and Pastors. In the same neighborhood he raped and pillaged.

  • Maxine

    I absolutely cannot believe the audacity of the public officials in this city. Here it is the City owes small business owners Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars for legitimate work that was done, and t

  • Stephanie

    I knew Emanuel “way back when” when community voter registration and self-determination were waves of the times. Having spent much of my adult life away from Philly, I didn’t know Emanuel had morphed from respected 1970s activist to greedy profiteer. I am so disappointed.

  • Lauren

    I read with great disgust the article “Emanuel Freeman: The Man Who Duped City Hall” earlier this week in Philadelphia Magazine. I’m infuriated at the waste, mismanagement, seeming corruption, and overall disregard for the residents—by not only Freeman, but also by the Northwest’s elected leaders – who are supposed to have their constituents’ best interest at heart.
    Freeman received $100 million over the last 20 years via grants, tax breaks and low-interest loans and what do we have to show for it? A walk through Germantown is appalling: downtrodden buildings, trash on the streets, failing businesses, underperforming schools, crime, empty lots. Is THIS what $100 million buys?
    Where would our community be today if that money was put to proper use? We could have better schools; thriving businesses; help for mothers and children; community organizations that actually HELP the community. In short, Germantown could be—and should be– a shining example for other neighborhoods in the city. What a wasted opportunity—especially for our youth.
    While Councilwoman Donna Reid Miller seems to have gotten the majority of the scrutiny, I demand to know where our other Northwest elected officials stand on this. My State Representative, John Myers, should be as infuriated as I…

  • Lauren

    yet so far we’ve not heard a single word from Myers on Freeman, Miller or their financial rape of Germantown. In fact, Jason Fagone’s article indicates that Myers is in bed with Miller, Freeman and others who’ve literally robbed the community. He writes, that Myers was part of “Settlement’s freshman class” and “had graduated to positions of real power in the city, thanks in part to Freeman’s connections.”
    And what’s more, despite everything, Freeman still believes he has a pipeline and working relationship with our elected officials. He wants Miller’s assistance to “embark on a significant venture” located behind the failing school he wasted taxpayer money on. What’s wrong with this picture and where does it end?
    It’s time that we demand better. Better for our children, better for working parents struggling to get by, better for our local businesses, better for our community as a whole. It’s time we demand more from our leaders. I am a professional working woman, a mother, a wife, a taxpaying resident and I now accept the challenge of being a community activist. I urge others to stand with me in a fight to demand that the funds invested in our district are put to…

  • Lauren

    good use and to begin to reinvest in Northwest Philadelphia — this time for real.

    Lauren Anderson Youngblood
    Community Activist

  • Steve

    The LAST thing we need is another Youngblood in office. She is just as corrupt as the others in this article, and sold her district away just to stay in office! Sorry, we will fight tooth and nail to make sure that NO Youngblood ever makes in in office again!

  • Pat

    If this article is of interest to you and you oppose the pillaging that has taken place in this great Philadelphia neighborhood, please check out a new Face Book page called Battle for Germantown and become a friend.

  • Enough’s Enough

    I observed Freeman and Settlement in action while working on site but for another employer. A dazed and confused finance wing, late paychecks, the hopeless charter school, and both Mr. and Mrs. Freeman’s aloof manner and fancy cars- all as bad as the article describes. I hope Freeman’s ride is over and other leaders can step up in Germantown.

  • Rozalind

    You won’t hear from John Myers because he was a part of it as well. He sits on the Board of Germantown Settlement and his wife was on their payroll for quite some time. So you should be appalled with him as well. Every last one of them needs to payback all the money they stole from the city and state. LISC had better take a look at their executive director as well, he’s the former COO of Germantown Settlement.