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.