“Take the $15 million and buy something someplace else” a voice on the phone demanded, but Eddie Thomas Freeman, owner of Sugarhill Restaurant & Supper Club located at 609-615 Dekalb Ave. (corner of Nostrand Avenue) in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, continues to push back against the relentless tide of realtors and developers seeking a sale in a display of unwavering, uncompromising values ascending to celebrate 39 years of service to the community.
Bedford-Stuyvesant, like many renowned Black communities, is being subjected to rapid gentrification. Mom and pop stores, the lifeline of these communities, are fighting the trend that would see them almost extinct. However, Sugarhill intends to remain the exception.
Freeman, the oldest of eight children, was born in Kinston, N.C., in 1940. He was a sharecropper and graduated from high school at the age of 16. Determined to escape the tobacco fields for a better living, when he reached the age of 17, he migrated to New York and settled in Bed-Stuy with an aunt. He worked in one of the many neighborhood factories, earning $40 a week, and drove a gypsy cab part time for an extra $20 a week. From his earnings, Freeman saved $40 a week and spent $20 on living expenses. Later, he obtained a job at the post office and was employed there for 20 years. Over the years, he was continually sending money back home to help support his family.
Freeman, in search of a better tomorrow, started a burglar alarm company and continued driving cabs on the weekends. He converted an acquired small downstairs space into a bar/club, and later the space expanded when a paint store next door was up for sale and he purchased it through a loan. The restaurant now occupies the entire corner space with three lots in the back. Later a rooftop dining space was added to the structure. It took 20 years to develop the entire site. The discotheque was opened in 1978 and the Sugarhill Restaurant launched in 1993.
To Freeman, Sugarhill is more than just a restaurant. Its name is rooted in his North Carolina experience of the separation of communities along color lines. He lived in a town where the line of demarcation, Main Street, kept the white and Black residents apart. On the Blacks’ side, Freeman saw the hustling and bustling residents crowd into the Black-owned businesses on a daily basis in an area called Sugarhill. This name was chosen to memorialize his growing up in the town.
The sprawling two-story enterprise on Dekalb Avenue has more to offer inside than the outside suggests. There are six different areas for entertainment. The street floor is fully equipped with a bar and dancing area with disco lights in the floor, a stage for entertaining artists to perform and elegant two-sectioned table seating areas. This floor opens into the backyard, which has large private booths on the perimeter and outdoor seating to accommodate 700 patrons. Another room showcases large barbecue drums and complete cooking space. The backyard is adjacent to vibrant Nostrand Avenue and welcomes the community to enjoy free meals and entertainment on “give back” occasions. The second floor of the restaurant displays a landscape of formal dining tables. There is another raised platform and two dining sections with bar accommodations. The rooftop restaurant offers a panoramic view of the bustling neighborhood.
This father of two, son Aaron and daughter Alesha, loves music and dancing. He reminisced about the time when former First Lady Hillary Clinton was running for a seat in the Senate and held a fundraiser at Sugarhill. Famous musicians, entertainment artists, politicians and local residents continue to use the establishment for functions or just to enjoy the cuisine and ambiance with family or friends.
As the Black CEO of a family owned business, Freeman says that Sugarhill is not without its challenges. He has a staff of more than 40 employees from the community, and, “as with most property owners in Bed-Stuy, city agencies are constantly looking for opportunities to harass them.” As property values in the community continue to rise, so does the frequency of calls from realtors and developers asking him to sell. Freeman said that he is currently in a court battle with HPD over an additional four lots in the vicinity that he owns. This man of character, principal and commitment says that he will never acquiesce and “take their offers and buy something someplace else,” although he does believe that he doesn’t get the deserved support from his elected representatives.
Sugarhill Restaurant-Supper Club is open Monday through Sunday with dining, dancing and live entertainment. Jazz and blues are Monday through Sunday.