NYC home believed to be part of Underground Railroad designated historical landmark

DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN, Brooklyn (WABC) -- A home in Brooklyn linked to the Underground Railroad was granted landmark status Tuesday, the culmination of a decades-long battle we profiled last year during Black History Month.

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission's decided to preserve 227 Duffield Street, the last remaining original structure on a block co-named "Abolitionist Place" due to several anti-slavery activists who lived there during the mid-1800s, as a historical landmark.

Since her time on the New York City Council, Attorney General Letitia James has worked to preserve this historic site. In 2007, she passed legislation to rename the block of Duffield Street "Abolitionist Place" and successfully stopped the city from tearing down the structure for new development.

In July 2020, she testified before the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the importance of designating the site as a landmark and protecting it for generations to come.

"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," she said. "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. Since my time in the City Council, I have fought for the protection of this important site, and now, I am immensely proud that during Black History Month, we can finally say it's here to stay. This piece of Black New York history will be forever safeguarded so that future generations may know its story."

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The structure was built in 1848.

"Harriet and Thomas Truesdell were living here at the time the Fugitive Slave Act was passed," Circle for Justice Innovations Executive Director Aleah Bacquie Vaughn told Eyewitness News last year.

The Truesdells were friends with abolitionist icon William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet helped organize the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, which convened in Philadelphia in 1838.

"We believe this home is a place in which people who had been enslaved were held while they were moving on the Underground Railroad and onto freedom in Canada," Bacquie Vaughn said. "They put their lives at risk."

Activists pointed to a series of tunnels in the basement connected to neighboring buildings, coupled with the knowledge that prominent abolitionists lived there, as justification for the strong suspicion that runaway slaves may have hidden there.

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For decades, they made that case to the city in hopes the building would be granted landmark status.

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February is Black History Month, a time the country highlights and celebrates the accomplishments of Black Americans.


In 2007, former owner Joy Chatel successfully fought an attempted seizure of the property through eminent domain.

Later that year, the city commissioned a report from an environmental firm that concluded there was no strong affiliation between the house and the Underground Railroad - a conclusion disputed fiercely by local activists.

"The city spent $500,000 and hired a firm that didn't have any architectural historians or archaeologists involved on their staff," Brooklyn historian and musician Raul Rothblatt said. "So they hired some historians to give credence to their report and all the historians said, 'you've got to save the building, you've got to save the building, you've got to save the building,' and then the executive director of the organization said, 'we shouldn't save the building.'"

The building's history has been fraught and difficult to uncover, like the Underground Railroad itself. Such an affiliation is both difficult to prove and disprove.

"We don't have records of the Underground Railroad," Bacquie Vaughn said. "The point was it was an illegal activity, and people weren't trying to have proof of that."

CLICK HERE for more Black History Month stories.

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