Protesters Continue Fight To Save Downtown Home Of Abolitionists

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN – In an effort to stall the impending demolition of 227 Duffield Street, activists are demanding the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) “calendar” a review of the house that they say belonged to abolitionists and served as a stop on the underground railroad.

Michael Higgins, an organizer with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) speaks at Tuesday’s rally. (Photo: Ben Verde)

At a rally outside the LPC’s 1 Centre Street offices on Tuesday, advocates denied claims that their fight is over and said they will continue to push for landmark status, despite the owner of the building applying for a permit to demolish the humble three-story brick house and build a 13-story mixed-use building in its place.

“We’re just going to save this place, we’re not going to stop, we’re not going to rest until we do it,” said Imani Henry, an activist with Equality for Flatbush, who hopes that the house will be landmarked and preserved as a museum. 

Preservationists have circulated a petition calling for LPC to schedule a review of the property on their calendar. To date, the petition has collected over 3,300 signatures. The petition was delivered to the LPC offices during the rally on Tuesday. The Commission’s calendaring 227 Duffield would prevent the building’s owner, Samiel Hansab, from demolishing it until the commission makes a final decision on the property. 

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Preservationists blasted the city’s lack of recognition of abolitionist sites, especially in light of New York’s important role in the Atlantic slave trade. 

“We have a lot of things to remember the slave owners in New York City, a lot of our streets are named after slave owners,” said Raul Rothblatt, who has been fighting to preserve 227 Duffield for 15 years. “We just want a little tiny bit of the city left for the people who resisted it.”

The house at 227 Duffield is the last known home of abolitionists in Downtown Brooklyn, a neighborhood that was rife with abolitionist activity during the pre-Civil War era. The house belonged to prominent abolitionists Harriott and Thomas Truesdell, Brownstoner reported. 

The house was first saved from the wrecking ball in 2004, when the city tried to seize it under eminent domain in order to make room for the long-delayed Willoughby Park, but backed away after a lawsuit. 

It was owned for years by Joy Chatel, a community organizer who fought to preserve abolitionist history in Brooklyn. Chatel, who passed away in 2014, said she had seen markings in the building next door that suggested a tunnel had once run between the two houses, which Chatel took as evidence that the house had been a stop on the underground railroad. Though an environmental planning firm hired by the city wrote in a study that they could not find “conclusive proof” that the house was an underground railroad stop, it is still widely believed among community members to be one.

The lack of documented proof and the changes made in the 1920s has kept the building from attaining landmark status. Its historical reputation is based mainly on oral tradition rather than written documents.

At the rally on Tuesday, preservationists painted the city’s inaction towards landmarking 227 Duffield as a historical injustice towards those who lived there, stressing the fact that pro-slavery sentiments were high in New York, and that abolitionists did dangerous work.

“Very few people resisted slavery,” said Rothblatt. “The people who lived at 227 risked their lives to fight the system that was the accepted system of their city – they need to be remembered.”

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Ben Verde

Ben Verde is a freelance reporter and third generation New Yorker. His work has also been in the Brooklyn Paper and Streetsblog NYC.

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