The movement to save the Downtown Brooklyn house of two abolitionists

July 9, 2019 Lore Croghan
The home to the left of the Brooklyn Brewhouse sign is 227 Duffield St., which activists are trying to save from demolition. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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Advocates are making a last-ditch effort to stop the demolition of a Downtown Brooklyn house where prominent abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell once lived.

The Circle for Justice Innovations launched a petition urging the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate 227 Duffield St. as a landmark.

This would protect the 19th-century house — which the petition calls “the last known standing historic site in Brooklyn where well-known Abolitionists lived and where people found freedom through the Underground Railroad” — from being torn down.

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In June, the city Buildings Department approved an application for a demolition permit for 227 Duffield St, filed by the developer who owns it.

“We cannot allow such an invaluable piece of our history to be erased,” says the petition, which decries “a lack of African American historical sites in Brooklyn.”

CJI is aiming to get at least 1,000 people to sign the petition, which is addressed to LPC’s Executive Director Lisa Kersavage. It was launched on July 3. On Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 600 signatures.

“The property embodies the role Brooklyn and New York City played in the Abolitionist movement at a time when the Fugitive Slave Act was the law of the land,” CJI’s petition notes.

A possible station on the Underground Railroad

Social justice organizer Equality for Flatbush tweeted a call to action on July 3 with hashtags including #BlackLandmarksMatter and #BlackHistoryMatters, urging people to sign the petition and spread the word.

The late owner of 227 Duffield St., Joy Chatel, believed the house was used by the Underground Railroad to assist slaves escaping to freedom.

Here’s a sidelong glimpse of 227 Duffield St., a small house surrounded by big developments. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Here’s a sidelong glimpse of 227 Duffield St., a small house surrounded by big developments. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

She had seen a tunnel inside a neighboring home, and thought an archway sealed with a stone boulder in her house’s sub-basement was the entrance to the Underground Railroad network.

A planning and environmental firm hired by the city to assess the historical significance of houses on Duffield Street didn’t find “conclusive proof” of Underground Railroad usage — but didn’t do any excavation to examine the tunnel, the New York Times reported in 2007.

Fighting injustice

In an interview Monday, Circle for Justice Innovations Director Aleah Bacquie-Vaughn told the Brooklyn Eagle her group is organizing a call-a-thon about the house. A large number of people will phone the Landmarks Preservation Commission on the same day and all ask the agency to put 227 Duffield St. onto its calendar for landmarking consideration.

The house is already on the agency’s radar screen. 

“We have received a request to evaluate 227 Duffield St. as a potential landmark and it is currently under review,”  a Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman told the Eagle.

And the Circle for Justice Innovations is reaching out to African-American billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith to ask him to fund the purchase of the house from the developer, plus its renovation and conversion into a museum.

Bacquie-Vaughn said fighting for the preservation of 227 Duffield St. — which her organization “very strongly believes” was used in Underground Railroad work — ties in with her group’s mission.

“Our organization funds grassroots organizations working to end mass incarceration and mass criminalization,” she said. “In other words, we’re trying to transform what many people currently call the criminal justice system, which is very devoid of justice … because it is a legacy of slavery that we have this institution functioning in the way that it functions — with black people four times more likely to be arrested for the same activity that a white person engages in.”

This is Willoughby Square Pop-Up on part of the site where Willoughby Square Park will be built. The top of 227 Duffield St. is visible in the background. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
This is Willoughby Square Pop-Up on part of the site where Willoughby Square Park will be built. The top of 227 Duffield St. is visible in the background. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

On Duffield Street, “we have people who literally were bringing people to freedom, and their memory is being erased,” Bacquie-Vaughn said.

“Let’s remember, they were also working against an unjust law, which is what we believe that we’re doing.”

Abolitionists opposed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Americans to help capture escaped slaves — even in states where slavery was illegal. It was enacted in 1850, which is the year the Truesdells bought 227 Duffield St., an Atlas Obscura story says.

“We’re working in contravention of unjust laws, and their implication on poor black and brown people and queer folks,” said Bacquie-Vaughn, who became interested in the property’s “very strong and rich legacy” because she walks past the house on her way to work.

“What we’re saying is that it’s really important for us to remind people that when there are unjust laws, we should resist,” she said.

City Councilmember Stephen Levin tweeted his support for the campaign to halt 227 Duffield St.’s demolition.

“This is about our history. And preserving and honoring resilience,” Levin tweeted. The house is located within his City Council district.

“As our country faces a rise of white supremacy and racist extremism, preserving Abolitionist Place’s history is more important than ever,” Levin also tweeted. “LPC needs to landmark this site.”

A history of activism

The street where 227 Duffield St. is located was co-named Abolitionist Place in 2007.

The Truesdells, who were “prominent African American Abolitionists,” were friends of famed abilitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the petition says. Garrison carried out his anti-slavery crusade with the help of his newspaper The Liberator.

The Truesdells lived in New England before they came to Duffield Street. Harriet was a member of the 1838 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women’s organizing committee and the treasurer of the Providence Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. Thomas was a founding member of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society.

The Truesdells’ residence stands on the Duffield Street block between Fulton and Willoughby streets. It is flanked by the Hotel Indigo on one side and the site of unbuilt Willoughby Square Park on the other.

The city spared the house from condemnation and takeover by settling a lawsuit in late 2007 that Chatel had filed. The city had intended to include the land on which 227 Duffield St. stands in its Willoughby Square Park site.

In January 2009, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Abraham Gerges issued an order condemning neighboring properties for takeover by the city. They have since been razed.

Chatel’s family doesn’t own the historic house she fought to preserve.

In 2015, a man to whom they’d sold a 50 percent stake in 227 Duffield St. turned around and sold his holding for $439,000 to 227 Duffield Street Corp. with developer Samiel Hanasab as its president, city Finance Department records indicate.

A surviving relative who co-owned the other 50 percent of the house with Chatel later sold their stake to 227 Duffield Street Corp. for $149,000, the records show.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. Ruth Eiss

    Who is funding the restoration of the property? Will it be turned into a museum? I feel there should be tours of the peers where fugitive slaves disembarked, of Plymouth Church and of the inn where black activists stayed in Downtown Brooklyn.