It’s Black History Month, so we thought it would be fitting to write about the latest news concerning an important home in downtown Brooklyn, owned by abolitionists during the Civil War Era. Although the fate of this home is still unclear, it has survived two very close calls with being torn down.
The property, which is a 4-story building located at 227 Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn, was a vital part of the anti-slavery movement. Number 227 is thought to be a place where Underground Railroad refugees stayed. During the Civil War era, an abolitionist couple named Thomas and Harriet Truesdell owned the house.
In 2004, New York City was about to seize the building through eminent domain as part of Michael Bloomberg’s urban renewal plan for downtown Brooklyn. Joy Chatel (lovingly known as “Mama Joy”), the owner of 227 Duffield Street at the time, as well as her neighbor Lewis Greenstein (owner of the house at 233 Duffield Street, who also made claims of abolitionist activity on that site-he said it was a "feeding station" for escaped slaves, based on stories he heard from past tenants) fought against the taking. Chatel and Greenstein were joined by local advocates, including the current New York State Attorney General (then City councilwoman) Letitia James, as they tried to prove that their houses were an essential part of abolitionist history.
Finally, in 2007, the city spared Mama Joy’s home and renamed it “227 Abolitionist Place.” However, the property was still not landmarked, and was at risk of being redeveloped, like the rest of the neighborhood.
For many years, advocates fought to have 227 Duffield landmarked. Finally, in February of 2021, officials declared the building a landmark, which stopped a planned private apartment conversion project. The effort to secure the landmark designation was hampered partly because there were no historical records officially documenting the house as a stop on the Underground Railroad. However, activists and scholars argued that the series of basement tunnels that connected neighboring houses are evidence that the abolitionist couple used their home to help runaway slaves.
What’s next for the building? It was previously reported that plans had been in the works to create a Black cultural center at the site (now valued at $1.28 million). Shawn Lee, daughter of former owner “Mama Joy” Chatel, was apparently involved with the center's creation, but she hasn’t said a word about the project.
We will keep you posted as to the developments in this story. In the meantime, it looks like this important historical property is safe from eminent domain.