VIDEO: Abolitionist Place: A piece of African-American history in Brooklyn

March 1, 2018 By Liliana Bernal Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Overshadowed by the relentless movement of the Fulton Mall District, a small street tries to survive in the memory of Brooklynites by keeping the history of the anti-slavery movement and its leaders who led hundreds of slaves to freedom using their houses on the block.

After various studies, historians and conservationists have agreed that the houses on Duffield Street may have served stations on the Underground Railroad, a network of underground tunnels that long ago connected the routes by which 100,000 slaves escaped from the South before the Civil War.

In 2007, the city gave Duffield Street an alternate name in honor of past residents’ antislavery work: Abolitionist Place.

Duffield Street is surrounded by representative abolitionist sites like Bridge Street AWME Church, the first African-American church in Brooklyn, and The Plymouth Congregational Church known as the “Grand Central Depot” for the Underground Railroad.

Only two houses from the 1840s, 227 and 223 Duffield, still stand.

The former, now known as 227 Abolitionist Place, was the home of Thomas and Harriet Truesdell, strong supporters of the abolitionist movement. The Truesdells purchased the property in 1850, the same year that the Fugitive Slave Act was passed.

Old maps and small artifacts uncovered in the basement, a doorway and a sealed arch leading to a tunnel indicate that the two-story building may have served as a station on the Freedom Trail.

Joy Chatel took ownership of the house in 1998. Once she learned the history she was lodging, she struggled to preserve the property until the day of her death.

As a single grandmother who raised five grandchildren and owned a hair salon, Chatel decided to sell half the building for financial reasons. The co-owners sold their part to developers, and although Chatel’s descendants hosted a fundraiser gala in 2016 to save the place, they didn’t raise enough money to keep it.   

The property is now in a legal process and will be renovated, but Chatel’s descendants requested the excavation of the arch and the doorway so they can preserve it.

Shawn Lee, Chatel’s daughter, told the Brooklyn Eagle that they are trying to keep the basement and create a museum in dedication to the abolitionist movement and “Mama Joy,” but it’s still a project they don’t know will be possible to complete. Their Plan B is to create a virtual museum.

“There is always struggle for liberation of the spirit and the culture, and the people,” Lee said, referring to their attempt to conserve the house and the history that it shelters.

“It’s my mission to continue my mom’s legacy, to make sure the 227 Abolitionist Place Museum may not be as we plan but it’ll still be.”

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