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Milwaukee's Martha 'Mama' Freeman shares what inspires her anti-violence work

Mama Freeman sitting in her home in Garden Homes neighborhood.
Joy Powers
/
WUWM
While driving through Milwaukee’s Garden Homes community, you may find Martha “Mama” Freeman. The anti-violence community activist has become such a fixture of the neighborhood they even named a street after her.

While driving through Milwaukee’s Garden Homes community, you may find Martha “Mama” Freeman. The anti-violence community activist has become such a fixture of the neighborhood they even named a street after her.

Mama Freeman has spent most of her life working for the community as a crossing guard, a teacher, a community builder, and now as a pastor at Alpha Omega Ministries. Mama Freeman also spent 20 years working inside the House of Correction. She often worked the night shift, where she would engage with incarcerated people and talk about their lives emotional wellbeing.

“You know some of them, you thought, were so tough and rough during the day, [but] at night, it wasn’t like that,” says Freeman. “They would sit. Some would cry. And it just changed my whole perspective. Just wanted to see if I could help them get out and help them stay out.”

These experiences motivated Freeman’s anti-violence and community-building activism within the Garden Homes community. She moved into the neighborhood in the early '70s and became famous for playing basketball, orchestrating fashion shows on her front porch, and hosting watermelon-eating contests.

“I think that’s why they put my name on the street," says Freeman. "It was a place where I would dream about, you know, my own house and not have to take my children far away because the park was right there. I just love that neighborhood.”

Freeman believes that generating a sense of community and respect in the neighborhood is critical to reducing violence in Milwaukee. She says she knows practically every resident in the neighborhood because she has watched most of them grow up.

“I honestly believe that the Lord put me there. Because it seems like if there’s a problem on the street, I can just go walk over there and go, ‘now what did you guys do?’" says Freeman. "You know, I’m just able to talk them out of, you know, some of the violence and that does my heart good.”

Freeman’s involvement has led to confrontations with large crowds and even taking guns out of the hands of others. She explains that she does everything out of her love of people and her desire to bring the good out of them, even if it takes a lot to bring that good out.

“I never thought that I would be a pastor, and never thought that I would have my name on the street, and never thought I would reach for any goals like that. But honestly, I just think that working with those that are in positions like [the] alderman and senator and those kind of people. I think there is hope there.”

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Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.
Cait Flynn joined WUWM in June 2022 as an assistant producer for Lake Effect.
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