A prominent Broadway actor announced last week on social media that he had purchased a centuries-old Massachusetts home, which he chose specifically as a symbol of racial progress because it was built by slaves and would now be owned by a “free gay black man.” His claim about the house’s dark past earned him coverage in numerous national media outlets — and maybe even a shot at his own home improvement show — but it is demonstrably false, according to the local historical society.
Robert Hartwell, a veteran Broadway actor, wrote in a Wednesday Instagram post that the historic house he bought in Great Barrington, Mass., was built in 1820 by slaves for the Russell family, “who owned the cotton mill in town.”
“I called the seller and was told it was a cash only offer and that ‘I’m sure that takes you off the table’. Don’t you ever underestimate a hard working black man,” Hartwell stated.
“I wish I could’ve told my ancestors when they were breaking their backs in 1820 to build this house that 200 years later a free gay black man was going to own it and fill it with love and find a way to say their name even when 200 years later they still thought I would be ‘off the table’,” he continued.
Hartwell’s post has been liked over 1 million times on Facebook, and drew coverage from CBS, Fox News, the New York Post, and other outlets, which repeated his claim that the house was built by slaves. The Post framed the story as Hartwell’s “battle with a real estate agent who he implied was racist.”
Suzann Ward, the realtor named as the listing agent, did not return a request for comment.
Hartwell has since launched a new venture called “Black Man White House” for people to follow his renovation efforts.
“I had no idea that when I posted the picture of the day that I got the opportunity to close on the house that so many people would resonate with the story,” Hartwell said in a video on his new website, admitting that “I need to know more” about the history of the house and the Russells.
“Who knows where this will land, if it’s on OWN, or if it’s on ABC, or if it’s on HGTV, who knows,” he said.
But there is no evidence the house was built by slaves, as slavery in Massachusetts was abolished nearly four decades earlier in 1783. In response to questions about Hartwell’s claims, the Great Barrington Historical Society told National Review that such a claim is “false information.”
“The house was built much later than people are assuming . . . there’s nothing that will substantiate that claim,” the society told National Review after its archivist researched the claim and found it to be false.
According to a brochure detailing Great Barrington’s historic district, the house was built in 1822 by the Russell family, which owned the Berkshire Woolen Company. A biographer of Berkshire County, Mass., describes how the Russells then acquired a “cotton print manufacturing establishment” in 1852 — 30 years after the house — which resulted in the business becoming “the most important manufacturing industry of the town.”
Hartwell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.