Cato Freeman: From Slave to Land Owner
As the nation celebrates Black History Month, we look at a local figure who made his own bit of history.
Slavery is a painful chapter in our nation's history. When many people think of slavery, they think of southern plantations. But there were slaves in Massachusetts. And even in Andover (and what is now North Andover).
One figure in local history who stands out is Cato Freeman, born a slave and died a land owner in what is now North Andover. While not much is known about Freeman, we can guess that he made an impression on the community.
Born in 1768 to slaves named Salem and Remas, Freeman was a slave owned by the Phillips family.
In 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution outlawed slavery in the commonwealth. Cato, however, chose to stay with the Phillips family as their servant for several years afterward. The family had treated him as one of their own children in many ways. They educated him, taught him to read and write and even to play the violin. In a letter to the family he wrote in 1789, which can be read at the North Andover Historical Society, Cato expressed happreciation to the family for taking care of him.
With records scarce, it is debated whether or not Cato moved to South Parish (now Andover) for a time during his teens.
Cato adopted the last name Freeman after leaving the Phillips family. He married Lydia Bistrow in 1789 and they had four children.
According to records, Freeman rented a house from the Osgood family. He later owned his own house on Pleasant Street.
While racism was rampant in America at that time, Freeman accomplished much. The Board of Selectmen in 1802 issued him a grazing permit for the Town Common, making him the first African American to be given that permission.
As with most African Americans of that era, Freeman's life was full of struggles. Even as a property owner -- he owned two homes in town during his life -- he was seen as inferior. Racial segregation was the norm, as seen in a policy at North Parish Church mandating that all English women who married or "associated with" black men be seated with black women. Freeman played the violin at that church, and when he accidentally caused the choir loft to collapse, many wanted him kicked out.
Freeman died in August 1853, at the age of 85 (although his tombstone says age 83). He didn't leave behind much in material possessions -- some tools, a gun, about $63 in cash and a plot of land worth $400 -- but he left a legacy.
In 1922, attorney Arthur P. Chickering visited Freeman's granddaughter, Ann Wood, in a local elderly home while searching for the title to some land Freeman had owned.
The Freeman family had been a blend of races, it would seem. In a letter Chickering wrote to Nathaniel Stevens, Chickering describes Wood, who was 94 at the time, Chickering describes (in language that would seem rather racist now) the surprise he felt when discovering Wood was white.
"She is the granddaughter of Old Cato Freeman, but has all the earmarks, in features and talk, of a typical New England Yankee," Chickering wrote. "She is quiet, cheerful and quite dignified and shows absolutely no trait of her negro ancestry."
In another article, we'll examine Freeman's homes and relationships with his community.