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19th century abolitionists’ home declared a landmark

Community fought historic house’s demolition

February 3, 2021 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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After a struggle going back at least 15 years, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission voted on Tuesday to declare the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell Home at 227 Duffield St. in Downtown Brooklyn a landmark.

This basically guarantees the continued existence of the vacant 19th century home, whose one-time owners, the Truesdells, were well-known abolitionists who may have used the house as a stopping point during the pre-Civil War Underground Railroad that helped enslaved African-Americans slaves escaping to freedom. The Fugitive Slave Law, enacted in 1850, mandated that escaped slaves could be captured and returned to their plantations, even if they were in a free state like New York.

The late Joy Chatel, the previous owner, in 2007 successfully sued to stop the city from condemning the home and demolishing it as part of the site for Willoughby Square Park. Chatel, who was helped in her fight by neighbor Lewis Greenstein, pointed to a bricked-up archway in the home’s sub-basement, which she believed led to a tunnel that connected to a neighboring house. Around that time, the house was officially renamed 227 Abolitionist Place.

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After Chatel died in 2014, family members sold off portions of the house, and it ended up in the hands of an entity known as “227 Duffield Street Corporation,” with Samiel Hanasab as president, according to an Eagle article by Lore Croghan from early 2020. In June 2019, Hanasab obtained city approval to demolish the house, but the move was halted by a petition drive. 

Ten years previously, the neighboring houses were torn down after a condemnation order by former New York State Supreme Court Justice Abraham Gerges, Croghan reported. 

In February 2020, an emergency rally was held, starting at Barclays Center and marching to the house. The demonstrators chanted “Black landmarks matter!” and “Abolitionists’ home! Leave it alone!” 

One of the Truesdells’ descendants, now living in Japan, contacted the activists and gave his support. Local politicians, including Councilmember Steve Levin, also supported the drive to save the house.

Brooklyn officials on Tuesday were quick to applaud Landmarks’ move.

Borough President Eric Adams said, “Few New Yorkers know that a small rowhouse in Downtown Brooklyn was a critical site in our nation’s history – a place where abolitionist thought flourished, and a safe harbor for slaves on their long sojourn to freedom. That’s why months ago, we joined a campaign to preserve the historical integrity of 227 Duffield Street — to show that the Black lives of freedom-seekers mattered, and still matter to this day. We thank the Mayor and the LPC for recognizing the significance of this site, and the need to preserve it for future generations.”

New York State Attorney Gen. Letitia James, a former Brooklyn councilwoman, said, “Brooklyn’s 227 Abolitionist Place, formerly Duffield Street, represents one of the most important ties that New York has to our abolitionist roots — roots that every Black New Yorker is proud of. During this time of national reckoning over the legacy of slavery and continued injustice faced by Black communities, maintaining that piece of history is critical in remembering how far we’ve come, and how far we still must go.”

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, also a former Brooklyn councilmember, said, “I applaud the designation of 227 Duffield as a landmark, for which my office has advocated and which is crucial to commemorating a piece of the history of the Black experience in New York City, as well as understanding that history and its relevance in modern context.  Just as it was vital several years ago to acknowledge and designate the shameful history of our city’s slave market at Wall Street, we must preserve and uplift our role in the Abolitionist movement.”


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