Underground Railroad participation is hard to prove. Activists battling to save 227 Duffield Street from demolition say its fate will show what New York values.
“Every time we produced new evidence, they told us it wasn’t enough. What do you want? You want me to have dead slaves in the basement?”
Lewis Greenstein was referring to the battle he and “Mama Joy” Chatel fought to prove to New York City that their downtown Brooklyn homes on Duffield Street were stops on the Underground Railroad in the 19th century, and worth saving, a battle that is ongoing. But how do you prove a two-century-old activity that was, as a matter of life and liberty, unrecorded?
Oral legend holds that many of the brownstones on the block of Duffield Street between Willoughby and Fulton were stops on the Underground Railroad, connected by tunnels that offered refuge and passage to escaped slaves. While Chatel died in 2014, her home, number 227, is the only one still standing, but it is slated to be demolished and replaced by an apartment building.
Advocates are fighting to protect what they consider an important part of African-American, and thus American history, by obtaining landmark status for it from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) and turning it into a museum. In reply to CityLab’s inquiry, the LPC emailed a statement that it is currently reviewing the request to evaluate the home. But with demolition permits filed in June, a decision may not be rendered in time to stay the wrecking ball.
The case highlights a societal disconnect: 400 years ago this month, slavery began in America, and the country continues to reckon with its extensive effects. The New York Times just launched a lauded, multi-part series, the 1619 Project, to explore this. But as New Yorkers shake their heads in horror at the series’s revelations, a building that many consider an important part of the anti-slavery struggle stands dilapidated, neglected, and undervalued by the city. It is soon to be, like the escaped slaves to whom it offered refuge, crushed by the indiscriminate wheel of capitalism, indicating just how far society’s interest in this history extends.
The house was first at risk in 2004. The city tried to use eminent domain to seize 227 from its owner, Joy Chatel, as part of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “urban renewal” plan for downtown Brooklyn. At the time, Chatel and Greenstein, owner of 233 Duffield, were joined by local advocates including 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. It seems that razing it for a pretty park to please a gentrifying populace, and replacing the tunnels through which escaped slaves may have traveled with an underground parking lot, didn’t provide great optics for the Bloomberg administration.
But critically, while the city stuck up a sign naming the street Abolitionist Place in 2007 and spared some of the houses, it did not landmark any of the Duffield Street homes. People rejoiced at the time, but the city was playing a long game. The sign was an inexpensive nod to history, but without landmark status, some homes succumbed to eminent domain and other weary owners finally sold the un-landmarked buildings. The houses have been demolished, and a little more than a decade later, downtown Brooklyn, humming with the sounds of construction, looks new and shiny.
Except for 227.
It’s the lone Duffield house standing on that block, a dilapidated three-story brick structure in the midst of sleek new builds. And this time those who want to see 227 preserved aren’t fighting a city that can be embarrassed. Their opponents are developers who have steadily pressed forward by doing what they do best: buying out weary people with few resources, and placating local officials’ opposition with ambiguous promises.
“This just goes to demonstrate the priorities of our government, what we value and what we don’t,” said Michael Higgins Jr., an organizer at FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) who has been working to save the home for many years. “The issue to make it a landmark could have been solved in 2007, and now we have to do it.”
Those who are fighting for 227 now have in their hands the 2007 report commissioned by the city during the initial battle. While it somehow concluded that the significance of the Duffield homes wasn’t strong enough to warrant saving, it documented crucial evidence. It is one of the few places where the stories told by Albert Chatel, Mama Joy’s husband who died in 1996, are collected. Born in 1914, Albert Chatel had a documented relationship with people old enough to have been familiar with the mid-1800s abolitionist movement.
Mama Joy Chatel was born in 1947, the year before Albert moved into 227 Duffield with his first wife, Vera. (Albert and Vera were white—Mama Joy was African-American.) Vera was born in 1915, and city and census records show that Vera’s parents had been resident on that street since at least 1905.
According to the oral histories gathered in the report, Vera’s parents told Albert of the escaped slaves who sought refuge there, referring to the tunnels that still existed and the kerosene lamps placed in the back windows to indicate that the freedom seekers were welcome. It is undisputed that abolitionists Harriet and Thomas Truesdell lived in the 227 Duffield Street house and were known to host William Lloyd Garrison*, and that the free black abolitionist community in Weeksville had comrades in downtown Brooklyn.
“They should landmark this building,” said Aleah Bacquie Vaughn, director of Circle for Justice Innovations (CJI), a grantmaking collaborative based in Brooklyn. “But first we have to stop it from being demolished. We can’t do anything if they destroy it, if they erase this critical history.”
CJI submitted a request for evaluation to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission on June 18, and on July 3 created a petition on Change.org that now has almost 4,000 signatures to urge the agency to preserve the location. On August 13, they joined other activists to rally outside of the Manhattan office of the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s executive director. “This is the chance for the city to do right by this property and the whole neighborhood and community that they treated so terribly,” said Vaughn.
The first battle
“In 2004, we got the letter that we had to vacate in six weeks or they’d seize the building via eminent domain,” said Greenstein, the Duffield Street homeowner who fought alongside Chatel. “It wasn’t addressed to individual tenants. Just a postcard in front of our building. So we went to work to start fighting them for several years.”
“The biggest problem we had was New York City fighting us tooth and nail,” said Greenstein. The city considered the neighborhood blighted, he says, and an impediment to an “urban renewal” plan for downtown. So he and Joy set to work collecting evidence about their homes’ historical significance in order to save them.
Researching and attending city council hearings became a full-time job for Greenstein and Chatel. “At one hearing, all of the city council people are nodding off while we’re testifying. People were walking in and out. No one was listening. So what was that all about? Is this a real hearing?” Greenstein told CityLab. “Joy and I would come out of these hearings crying because no one was listening to us. We present data, they don’t listen. The city presents lies, and it’s all good. I’m sure Joy died because of all this. She gave her heart and soul to the process, and it burned her up.”
Responding to protests from Duffield Street residents and local activists, the city decided to commission the previously mentioned report to delve into the historical relevance of 227 Duffield and other buildings on the block. Issued in 2007, the report concluded, “the sensitive context in which the buildings on Duffield Street and Gold Street existed is not sufficient in itself to presume a potential connection to the Underground Railroad,” yet this seems at odds with the evidence the report presents. It notes historical maps indicating connecting tunnels between the houses; admits that experts do not think the tunnels were for coal as Greenstein says the city originally claimed; and in addition to citing the Truesdell’s residence at 227 beginning in 1851, it documents the many known abolitionist venues nearby including the Bridge Street Church; the home of Lewis Tappan, founder of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society; and several Prince Hall Mason’s lodges that were home to African American freemasons linked to Underground Railroad activity.
Yet, using the commonly accepted terminology and rating for such sites, the report gives it a three on an ascending five-point scale, finding that 227 Duffield Street was “quite possibly involved.” This means that there is: “Considerable evidence of owner’s consistent, long-term commitment to abolitionism, but no positive evidence of Underground Railroad involvement.”
“The city framed the question in a way that’s impossible to win. It’s hard to prove underground railroad activity,” said Raul Rothblatt, a local activist who has been fighting to save 227 Duffield for 15 years. While slavery had been abolished in New York, the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it a crime to interfere with the capture of escaped slaves at a penalty of $1,000 (equivalent to about $30,000 in 2019) and six months in jail.
In the appendix, the city-commissioned report includes 12 peer reviewers—among them, historians, professors, and research librarians. Eight of the 12 expressed concerns with the firm’s evaluation of Chatel’s house, specifically noting the absence of archaeological investigation into any of the other six buildings studied in the report, and the failure to employ researchers familiar with local abolitionist history.
“People without enough training or background in the subject often think they can just make pronouncements without any real scholarly weight behind them,” one of the peer reviewers, Cheryl LaRoche, author of Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance, and associate research professor at the University of Maryland, told CityLab. “There has been no landmarking around this topic or this subject, and certainly Duffield Street qualifies.”
Raymond Dobard, now deceased, was an art history professor at Howard University when he was asked to review the report. He commented that the standards for accepting evidence in support of recognizing the Duffield houses, especially 227 Duffield, were set too high, and that he’d rate it a “four,” which corresponds to “almost certainly involved.”
The report documents oral histories recounting that escaped slaves would continue on from Duffield to Jamaica Turnpike, now Fulton Street, and head towards Weeksville or even further out to Long Island to board a ship to Canada, stopping at churches along the way. The legend was that the Duffield houses provided safe passage via a tunnel (which Lewis Greenfield believes he found and showed to the New York Times in 2007).
In her comments to the report, LaRoche detailed her findings that Duffield Street lies at the center of an Underground Railroad zone bounded by the home of William Harned, a known abolitionist, to the north; The Brooklyn Friends Meeting House, a station, to the southwest; Abolitionist Reverend Samuel Cox’s station, Lafayette Presbyterian Church to the southeast; Siloam Presbyterian Church and Bridge Street Church, activist black churches, to the northeast and north; and anchored by Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church, a celebrated Underground Railroad site less than a mile away. “For anybody to be tearing this building down without the proper amount of research would be quite irresponsible,” she told CityLab.
“I appreciate the difficulties of interpreting oral histories,” wrote Dobard in his comments to the report. “We might not always find corroborating evidence to verify the claims made by building owners, such as Mr. Greenstein or Miss Chatel. However, I would argue for a sensitive ear. Hear what they say. Names, dates and census records need not always align perfectly with what has been said in order for us to discern truth. The weight given to such documented support could, in my opinion, tip the scales of balance to favor believing only that which is certified via empirical knowledge. Faith, unlike knowledge, engages belief. The belief and the passions of many have surfaced. They should be respected.”
Safe, but not for long
In 2007, after a lawsuit filed by South Brooklyn Legal Services on behalf of Chatel and FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality), the city agreed to a settlement that said it would not take the home via eminent domain. That same year, Duffield Street between Willoughby and Fulton Streets was renamed Abolitionist Place.
“Joy was safe, but she was deep in debt from all the fighting,” said Greenstein, who said he put in thousands of his own dollars into financing evidence collection. “She had a lung condition and just kept getting sicker, and finally she succumbed to her diseases in 2014. Then the house was thrown into disarray. She was a major force there. Her daughter took over the house with others, and they were trying to establish a museum, but they couldn’t get the financial backing they needed.”
Nor could they afford to keep the house in working order. Fifty percent of the deed to the house had already been sold to Errol Bartholomew in 2005. It was in exchange for doing repairs and other work on the house, people familiar with the transaction say, as at the time, Joy wanted to convert the front section of the home into a hair salon so she’d have income to turn the home into a museum and pay Bartholomew back.
As construction for the rezoning project began on the street, 227 suffered basement flooding, roof damage, leakages, and mold, which Joy Chatel attributed to the surrounding construction. After Chatel’s death, Bartholomew sold his half-interest in the deteriorated house to the current owner for $439,000 in 2015, city records show, and Chatel’s daughter Shawne’ Lee, who was authorized by power of attorney, let the other half go in 2017 for $149,000. Other homes on the same block sold in the millions during this time period. (In 2015, Greenstein, weary of struggling, sold his home at 233 Duffield after receiving “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” He declined to say the price but city records indicate that it sold for $7.25 million that year.)
“The person who owns the house [227 Duffield] now, if you look him up, there’s a number of questionable sales,” said Circle for Justice Innovations’s Vaughn. “So my question is, are we going to continue to allow someone to prey upon elders who are ill to get to their homes?”
The building permits for 227 Duffield list Yuval Golan as the owner, but he told the site Brownstoner, that Samiel Hansab is the actual owner. Regardless, the two, specifically Golan, have garnered attention over the years for their dealings. Golan is behind the demolition of a former notable Italianate villa on Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill, reports Brownstoner. According to the New York Post, he also bought a Sunset Park home from the son of the blind owner for $6,000. And last year, Our Times Press reported that Golan purchased a home in Prospect Heights for just $50,000 following the death of its owner.
For his part, Hansab recently told Gothamist that he plans to build an African-American museum in the basement of his building, but he is under no obligation to do so. (Neither Hansab nor Golan replied to CityLab’s requests for comment by publication time.)
“So what?” asked Rothblatt. “I mean, he’s gonna destroy the building. Right now what’s powerful, I think, is that you can go into that basement and touch the walls, and you can see and feel what happened there. This would ruin that tangible connection. It would remove what is remarkable about the building. Seriously, would you want to go to a museum in the basement? I think he wants to build parking spots down there so, what, it would be on the way to the garage? It just doesn’t sound like a serious proposal to me.”
“Right now we have the immediate problem of stopping the building from being destroyed,” said Rothblatt. “Back when the [Economic Development Corporation] was investigating the claims, if they had found a body in chains in one of the cellars, they’d say, ‘Well you can’t prove that’s an escaped slave.’ They changed the burden of proof so much so that it was impossible to prove. And I think the Landmarks Preservation Commission is doing the same thing.”
“This is a chance to relook at New York City history,” said Rothblatt. “People always say that New York was on the right side of history when it comes to slavery, when in fact, NYC was the financial capital of the slave trade! It’s time to reassess what New York’s role was, and is.”
But 227 Duffield Street is still standing, a decrepit building surrounded by neon bars and concrete palaces with $3,250 per month studio apartments. Even as it seems that Mama Joy’s dream that her home would become a museum might have died with her, Rothblatt hopes it can be clawed back and the house turned into a proper commemorative space that inspires children and documents the struggle to destroy slavery in New York City.
“227 Duffield Street is the last home of the abolitionist network that’s still standing,” said Rothblatt, referring to the network surrounding Duffield. “And that’s worth saving.”
*CORRECTION An earlier version of this post said that it is documented that William Lloyd Garrison visited Harriet and Thomas Truesdell at the home at Duffield Street. While he was a documented acquaintance and visited them in Brooklyn, it is not certain that he visited them at the Duffield Street house.