Residents of a Lafayette neighborhood once known as a safe haven for freed slaves and free men of color during the mid-1800s are working to add the area to the National Register of Historic Places.
The proposed boundaries of the Freetown-Port Rico Historic District include East University Avenue, Lee Avenue, Garfield Street, Taft Street, Lucille Avenue, Jefferson Street and Coolidge Street.
Being placed on the National Register is a distinction given to places deemed worthy of preservation and could help with efforts to revitalize homes and businesses in the neighborhood.
“It really just allows people to have access to additional funding to get restoration money so we can get more of these houses cleaned up, made better and stay in commerce as long as possible as functional historic buildings that we all love, that add the character to this neighborhood,” said Elizabeth “EB” Brooks, president of the Freetown-Port Rico Coterie, a neighborhood group.
The National Register designation could increase the neighborhood’s chance for federal grants and bring tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic buildings.
“It’s a great incentive to keep buildings up and to maintain and preserve the integrity of the neighborhood,” said Ray Brassieur, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette associate professor of anthropology who has done historical research to support the neighborhood’s bid for inclusion on the register.
Brassieur said the process also offers the community a chance to dig deep into its history.
“For most people, they come to find out and they come to learn about things that even if they grew up in the neighborhood they never really did know,” Brassieur said. “For example, when I came here to this current job in 2001, the term ‘Freetown’ was not used.”
To apply to be nominated, a complete history of the neighborhood had to be compiled, most of which had been passed on as an oral tradition.
“A neighborhood that knows their history has an opportunity to develop in certain ways,” Brassieur said.
“They can have touristic development, thematic developments that you see in restaurants, or they can have a festival and things like that.”
Before the neighborhood was known as Freetown, it belonged to Alexandre Mouton, who served as governor of Louisiana in the mid-1800s.
The land that became Freetown was the back part of Mouton’s Î le Copal Plantation, which grew sugar cane.
Historical accounts differ, but the Freetown neighborhood is believed to have taken shape just before, during or shortly after the Civil War — a place where newly freed slaves and the original free men of color could create a community .