Abolitionists lived in this house. Activists fighting to save it from demolition fear time is running out.
‘Black landmarks matter!’ is their rallying cry
Activists are stepping up their campaign to stop 227 Duffield St., where prominent abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell lived, from being torn down and replaced with a 13-story, 21-unit apartment building.
The advocates fear the city Landmarks Preservation Commission isn’t going to put the pre-Civil War Downtown Brooklyn home onto its calendar to consider it for landmark designation. If the preservation agency did so, property owner Samiel Hanasab would be barred from tearing down the house.
Time is of the essence because last June, the city Buildings Department approved Hanasab’s application for a demolition permit for the vacant rowhouse, which is widely believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom.
On Saturday, organizers staged an emergency rally and march to 227 Duffield St., beginning outside Barclays Center. The demonstrators filled the plaza with chants and handed out informational fliers about the home to families departing the arena after a performance of the Jurassic Park Live Tour.
“Black landmarks matter! Black landmarks matter!” the demonstrators called out.
“Abolitionists’ home! Leave it alone!” was another chant.
‘Surprised and shocked’
At the rally Imani Henry, founder and lead organizer of grassroots group Equality for Flatbush, told the Brooklyn Eagle that at the end of January, word came down through various channels that the Landmarks Preservation Commission was going to reject advocates’ request to make the Duffield Street house a candidate for landmarking.
Henry said that due to pressure from the community, the preservation agency has refrained from taking this step in February — which would be an especial affront because this is Black History Month.
The Truesdells’ home is “an important part of history that is not just about Brooklyn itself, but it does mean so much to the entire country and, actually, globally,” Henry said.
One of the Truesdells’ descendants, who lives in Japan, has contacted activists about 227 Duffield St. He’s “just surprised and kind of shocked that it hadn’t been landmarked already,” Henry said.
“This is a moment in history that particularly, if and when we save this building, this is a global victory,” Henry added. “This is a victory against fascism and racism. This is a victory against white supremacy.”
A Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson told the Eagle the request to evaluate 227 Duffield St. for landmarking consideration is still under review.
Property owner Hanasab did not respond to a request for comment.
The Truesdells’ house had previously been in peril but its then-owner, the late Joy Chatel, saved it. She sued to stop the city from condemning and tearing down the home and making the land part of the site for Willoughby Square Park. The city settled the case in late 2007.
That year, before settling the case, the city co-named Duffield Street “Abolitionist Place.”
In 2009, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Abraham Gerges issued a condemnation order for neighboring buildings on the Duffield Street block between Fulton and Willoughby streets. They have been torn down.
The park hasn’t been built yet. Most of the site is bare land hidden from public view by a construction fence. Last summer, a portion of it was covered with artificial turf and gravel and turned into a temporary pop-up park.
Victoria Cambranes, who’s running for City Councilmember Stephen Levin’s seat, told the Eagle at Saturday’s rally that Abolitionists played an important role in New York City history. “And for us to try and erase that now, at a time when there’s so much friction and so much erasing of history and rewriting of history, is absolutely despicable,” she said.
Chatel, the late owner of 227 Duffield St., believed a blocked-up archway in the house’s sub-basement was an entrance to an Underground Railroad tunnel.
The city hired a planning and environmental firm to look into the history of her house and the others on her block. The firm decided — without doing any excavation to examine the tunnel — that there wasn’t any “conclusive proof” of Underground Railroad usage, the New York Times reported in 2007.
Marc Dolan, a CUNY Professor of American Studies, told the Eagle at Saturday’s rally, “It is ridiculous to say there is no evidence of an Underground Railroad stop — because you didn’t keep records in an Underground Railroad stop.”
People who were involved in the Underground Railroad were breaking the law and trying to keep it a secret. They were wary of putting things in writing.
Thomas and Harriet Truesdell bought 227 Duffield St. in 1850, a story in Atlas Obscura says. That’s the year the Fugitive Slave Act came into being. This law compelled people to assist in the capture of escaped slaves even in states such as New York where slavery was illegal.
The Truesdells lived in New England before moving to Brooklyn. He was a founding member of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Society. She was the Providence Ladies Anti-Slavery Society’s treasurer and also was on the organizing committee for the 1838 Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, which took place in Philadelphia.
They were friends with well known Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
On Saturday, demonstrators marched up Flatbush Avenue, then turned onto Fulton Street to get to the Duffield Street house. Some carried an enormous banner with the slogan “Black Landmarks Matter.” Others held individual signs that read, “#Save227Duffield” and “Preserve Black History.”
After the marchers arrived at 227 Duffield St., several of them gave short speeches about their ardent desire for the house to be landmarked and saved from demolition.
“I want to say that this is sacred ground we’re on,” Elaine Gay told fellow marchers. “And it should be preserved.”
The speakers included Justin Cohen, who’s running for the state Assembly seat in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights, and Jason Salmon, who’s running for State Sen. Velmanette Montgomery’s seat. Zulmilena Then, the founder of Preserving East New York, said she joined Saturday’s march to show solidarity with the advocates who want to save 227 Duffield St.
Jamila Fynes of the Office of the Mayor spoke briefly. She said Mayor Bill de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray “are very concerned about what is happening” at 227 Duffield St.
“They are working to see all possible options that we can look at and target to help preserve the history of this site,” Fynes said.
She said she couldn’t go into detail but pledged to be “in constant communication” going forward.
A petition the Circle for Justice Innovations launched in July calls on the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Executive Director Lisa Kersavage to landmark 227 Duffield St. Nearly 8,500 people have signed the petition, with more signatures coming since Saturday’s demonstration. A recently launched Go Fund Me campaign aims to raise $5 million — money that would be used to offer to buy 227 Duffield St. from the developer who owns it.
If you liked this story, read about Rev. Charles Ray, an Underground Railroad conductor who is buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery.