Martin Henry Freeman’s life can be divided into two periods: his 37-year residence in America and his 25-year stay in Liberia, Africa. Freeman was born in bucolic Rutland, Vermont, on September 11, 1826. He attended the predominantly white East Parish Congregational Church whose pastor recognized Freeman’s precocity and volunteered to prepare him for college. Freeman was accepted into Middlebury College and graduated class salutatorian in 1849. He taught briefly in Boston before accepting an invitation to join the faculty of the newly established Allegheny Institute and Mission Church (later Avery College) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1850. Freeman’s appointment at the first state-chartered degree granting institution for blacks distinguished him as the first college-educated black professor in America. In recognition of his advanced study in mathematics and natural philosophy, Middlebury College voted to award him a M.A. degree in 1852. In 1856, when Avery College’s first white president resigned, Freeman was elected president.
The decade of the 1850s, noted by The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was bone-jarring to free blacks and prompted serious minded free blacks to act decisively in defense of their interests. Freeman was counted among the leading thinkers within Pittsburgh’s free black community addressing these issues and formulating policy and thought around black emigration ideology. Of all the people in Freeman’s circle of friends, he was influenced most by the writings and force of personality of Martin R. Delany. It was during this time that Freeman came to fully grasp the ubiquity and depth of American racism, since his early years in Rutland had ill-prepared him to handle the reality of physical assaults and other racial insults. His occupational status was no buffer from such harsh treatments.
Additional accomplishments of Freeman during this time period included his membership on the National Board of Commissioners and his service as Special Foreign Secretary of the National Emigration Convention of 1854. He was a forceful contributor to Frederick Douglass’s Paper and The Anglo-American Magazine, a short-lived publication inspired by the emigration movement.
On September 11, 1857, Freeman married Louisa Eleanor Peck, a graduate of Oberlin College, in the same month the Dred Scott Decision was handed down, which instantly made life in America exponentially more tenuous for free blacks. With a wife and future children to protect, Freeman was convinced America would never accept free blacks as co-equal citizens.
Consequently, Freeman resigned the presidency of Avery College in 1863 to accept an appointment as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Liberia College. The faculty of Liberia College, notably Alexander Crummell and Edward Blyden, consisted of men much like his comrades in Pittsburgh. Within Liberia College, Freeman was among men who placed pride of race at the center of their pedagogy, philosophy and action. They shared something else. They were each dark skinned men in an Americo-Liberian society that placed a premium on individuals who possessed the least amount of melanin. Contending with the existential quandary of Liberian life placed upon him, Freeman came to terms with his predicament and lamented, “I am not a Liberian, I am simply a Negro at-large on this planet, stopping just now in the Mulatto Republic of Liberia solely because life is more tolerable here than in the Anglo-Saxon Republic across the Atlantic.” The skirmishes on skin color not only framed the politics of Liberia but soon brought dissension within Liberia College as well.
Freeman was a reticent man who did not seek prominence at Liberia College. Yet, when called on, he never shrank from what he regarded as his duty to Liberia College. After the death of the college’s first president, responsibilities fell increasingly on Freeman, which he found extremely onerous. Experiencing failing health Freeman visited the U. S. in 1887 seeking medical assistance. While in America the governing board of Liberia College bestowed upon Freeman an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Shortly after his return to Liberia, he was elected the third president of Liberia College. Freeman relished being a professor of mathematics and science on two continents but found the visibility of being a college president on the same less attractive. Freeman died March 13, 1889 and was buried in Monrovia, Liberia.
For additional information see Russell W. Irvine’s “Martin H. Freeman of Rutland, America’s First Black College Professor and Pioneering Black Social Activist.” Rutland Historical Society Quarterly, Volume XXVI, No. 3 (1996): 71-99. Also see “Nation Building: The Origins and Development of Liberia College, 1849-1868 by Russell W. Irvine, Edwin Mellen Press, 2010.