Freeman rose quickly within Settlement. In 1972, at age 24, he was elected its first black board member. From his new perch, he recruited more black board members, until, by 1983, Freeman was no longer just a board member — he was executive director. The Quakers didn’t know what had hit them until it was too late: Freeman had pushed them out of their own organization. (“The Quakers didn’t see this racially,” says one black activist with a long history in Germantown. “By the time they realized what Freeman was doing, it was over.”)
Freeman began knitting himself into the broader political tapestry of the city. Mayor Wilson Goode named him to his housing task force, and in 1986, Freeman helped pick the city’s housing director. By the early 1990s, he was no longer some rinky-dink neighborhood guy; he was a player.
And next, he did what players do, which is to think big and build big. Along with his deputy, Melvin Burgess, a 300-pound bear of a man, Freeman embarked on an ambitious effort to transform Germantown’s bricks and mortar. So-called “community development corporations” have been doing this for decades. The model is straightforward: If you live in a run-down neighborhood, private developers won’t come in and transform it, because they don’t see any money to be made. So you get some tax dollars, hire some contractors, and start building and rehabbing homes yourself. If you build good homes, people will buy them at market rates, and then those private developers will want in. When CDCs are successful, as they’ve been in North Philly and Mount Airy, it’s a beautiful thing — economic necessity meets racial justice.
And for a time, Settlement got its tax-financed projects done: 87 units of elderly housing at Elders Place I and II; 228 apartments near the Germantown Cricket Club; Freedom Square, a retail development. Former Settlement employees say it was Burgess, a kind-hearted nuts-and-bolts accountant, who drove the company’s success — but it was Freeman who took the credit. By 1994, the Inquirer was calling him the “Willard Rouse of Germantown,” and the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore awarded him more than $3 million over several years to “reverse social isolation and disinvestment” in Germantown. The Casey grant was a game-changer, more steady money than Germantown had ever seen, and it was augmented by $300,000 in yearly “core operating support” from Rendell, who also connected Freeman with additional funds through a partnership with Mellon Bank and gave him a direct line to his powerful deputy, David L. Cohen. (Cohen e-mailed me, “My recollections on these issues are just not that strong.”)