City landmarks 227 Duffield, once home to abolitionists
by Benjamin Fang
Feb 10, 2021 | 529 views | 0 0 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The house at 227 Duffield Street has been designated a New York City landmark.
The house at 227 Duffield Street has been designated a New York City landmark.
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Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the landmark designation at City Hall. (Photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the landmark designation at City Hall. (Photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)
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First Lady Chirlane McCray called on New Yorkers to preserve their own family’s histories. (Photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)
First Lady Chirlane McCray called on New Yorkers to preserve their own family’s histories. (Photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)
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Two days into Black History Month, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) has designated the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell House at 227 Duffield Street as a landmark.

The Downtown Brooklyn building was once home to the Truesdells, prominent abolitionists who were active in the movement to abolish slavery.

As a result of the landmark status, the structure cannot be altered, reconstructed or demolished without approval from the LPC.

Last Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, First Lady Chirlane McCray and community advocates celebrated the designation, which was the culmination of a years-long campaign to landmark the site.

“When we talk about 227 Duffield street, we’re not just talking about a building,” de Blasio said. “We’re talking about a deeper history, and something we cannot afford to lose because it’s part of our heart and soul.”

Harriet and Thomas Truesdell moved to Brooklyn from Rhode Island in 1839. They lived in the Downtown Brooklyn home between 1851 and 1863, and the property remained in their family until 1921.

Although the house added a two-story commercial extension in 1933, it still retains its 19th century form.

The Truesdells were associated with the American Anti-Slavery Society and the National Anti-Slavery Standard, a weekly newspaper. They were acquaintances of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who once visited the home.

After Harriet died in 1862, Thomas Truesdell moved to New Jersey, but the Downtown Brooklyn home remained in the family for decades.

Last July, the LPC hosted a hearing on the proposed landmarking of 227 Duffield Street. More than 40 people testified in favor of the measure, and the commission received more than 70 letters in support. Nearly 17,000 people also signed an online petition supporting the landmarking.

“The Landmarks Preservation Commission is committed to telling the story of New York City’s African-American heritage and experience,” said LPC Chair Sarah Carroll, “and is prioritizing designations like the Harriet and Thomas Truesdell House as part of its equity framework.”

Among the elected officials supporting the landmarking were Attorney General Letitia James and Borough President Eric Adams.

In 2007, James worked with activists, including Joy Chatel, the owner of the site, to co-name Duffield Street as Abolitionist Place. They also worked to stop the city to prevent tearing down the building for new development.

James said 227 Abolitionist Place represents one of the most important ties that New York has to its abolitionist roots.

“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,” she said. “This piece of Black New York history will be forever safeguarded so that future generations may know its story.”

Both the mayor and the First Lady also paid tribute to “Mama Joy,” who passed away in 2014. De Blasio said though the past is often “swept aside, covered up, ignored,” activists like Chatel fought to preserve it.

“Mama Joy understood there was a power and truth on Duffield Street that could not be lost. If she had not fought, this would have simply been lost,” he said. “This was a battle for justice led by members of the community in Brooklyn, and I’m happy to say the community prevailed.”

McCray said Chatel saw the beauty and importance of the house, and took it upon herself not to sell it, but to protect it and let people know what took place there.

“She taught children about the bravery of our ancestors,” she said, “and celebrated those who were fighting for freedom right here in this city.”

McCray noted that though it’s hard to research and identify Underground Railroad sites due to their clandestine nature, the LPC has designated all 17 confirmed sites in New York City “that we know of” as landmarks.

McCray urged New Yorkers to help preserve that history by interviewing their parents and grandparents, saving family photos and heirlooms, and writing down family stories.

“It’s on us, we have to own our history,” she added. “We have to go back and understand it. It’s on us to give it value.”

In addition to 227 Duffield Street, Chatel believed that 231 Duffield Street and 436 Gold Street in Brooklyn were stops on the Underground Railroad because they were connected by tunnels.

Other sites in Brooklyn, such as the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, have had documented associations with the Underground Railroad network.

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, whose office also testified in favor of landmarking, said officials must expand on this progress and preserve other sites in the abolitionist movement. He noted that 857 Riverside Drive, the home of renowned abolitionist Dennis Harris, is also facing imminent demolition.

“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,” Williams said. “This is a moment to establish and educate New Yorkers on a fuller understanding of the city’s historical role in slavery and modern mandate around systemic oppression and racial injustices.”
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