On the corner of 27th and Atkinson, Martha Freeman sits in her van outside Alpha & Omega Ministries, her white storefront church sandwiched between a barbershop and a beauty salon. She scopes out the neighborhood with her friend Anita.
“If you look down that street there, every now and then you are going to see some heads peep around that corner and then they will go back,” Freeman says. “They are waiting for me to leave so they can sell drugs.”
“What I usually do is walk over here and say ‘I just took your picture, I know what you’re doing’,” she says, waving her cell phone in the air.
Her tinted passenger side window is rolled down; everyone who walks by and catches a glimpse of the unmistakable Freeman wastes no time in coming to the car to speak. Freeman greets them all with a huge smile and genuine interest. She always wants to know how they and their families are doing.
One man comes to complain about his diabetes, and ends up leading the group in prayer. He thanks god for Ms. Freeman and the love she shows — to him and the rest of the community. On top of it all, she leaves free bread outside of her church for people almost every day.
Martha was born in Gainsville, Georgia, and moved with her father to Milwaukee when she was 4. They lived on 6th Street, in a basement apartment armed with large rat traps that would keep her up late into the night with their loud snaps.
These days, that “familiar sound” is gunshots, Freeman says.
“Back then you didn’t hear all that,” she reminisces. “If there was a murder or a street fight, everybody in town would buy up all the newspapers reading about it. Children were playing, we could play outside all day long. It was just different.”
At 10, her mother moved to Milwaukee from Georgia, and Freeman went to live with her.
Four years later, Freeman had her first son; within five more years she had four more children. She stayed in school, graduated from Custer High School and went on to take classes at UW-Milwaukee, studying secondary education.
In the late ‘60s, Ms. Freeman became eligible for a program that provided down payment on a home for a select few who had five or more children. She moved in right around the corner on 26th Street.
“I thought I was rich,” Freeman laughs. “You know how you see dirt out here on the streets? Well not by my house! I used to sweep the street and hose it down.”
She cleaned homes in Whitefish Bay to provide for her family.
“I worked so hard scrubbing them floors on my hands and knees until I had scars all everywhere, but it provided a place for my kids to have friends to come over.”
Her home was a haven for neighborhood youth. Through working third shift at the Sheriff’s Office for 20 years, she made connections within the community.
“I feel their hurt,” Ms. Freeman winces. “I know what it’s like — I’ve experienced the hurt. I know what it’s like to not have money”
When she was a child she would get into fistfights standing up for other people. But, as Freeman reflects, her anger, as a youngster, came from wanting to be loved.
“A lot of times you don’t want to share those kind of needs … because people look at you crazy. They might even have the same kinds of feelings but, you know, can’t express it.
“I found out that it is better for me to be for real with myself and my feelings, even if it is anger. Be for real with it, so I can get rid of it,” she says.
Now, at 78, Freeman is still fighting, just a slightly different battle.
“I am still fighting for people, I am fighting for their souls and it’s important to me because I can see how my life changed.”
“There are many mothers out here that are crying because their kids are locked up, crying because they can’t get through to them.”
“My children no longer carry guns. They no longer sell drugs. They are no longer in that type of lifestyle. And that is a peace for me. I would like to see other mothers experience that.”⬩
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