History archives reveal identities, stories of formerly enslaved people of Brooklyn's Lefferts House

Lucy Yang Image
Wednesday, February 7, 2024
Archives reveal names of formerly enslaved people of Lefferts House
Lucy Yang has the story.

PROSPECT PARK, Brooklyn (WABC) -- If you've spent time in Brooklyn's Prospect Park or driven down nearby Flatbush Avenue, you've likely passed the Lefferts House.

The 18th-century property, plus 300 surrounding acres, were once owned by the Lefferts family. But many may not know that at least 25 enslaved people lived and toiled there, as they dreamt of freedom.

An important research project is currently underway to learn more about those enslaved and find their living descendants.

That includes learning more about a man named Isaac.

"Isaac was enslaved by Jacob Bergen down in Cobble Hill, somehow he got himself purchased by Lefferts in 1818. Within three months, he escaped with his wife and children, who were enslaved across the street on Martense Farm," said Dr. Dylan Yeats of the Project Park Alliance. "Inspiring story, he must have engineered this sale so he could be closer to his family and then they escaped. No evidence to suggest they were ever found."

Isaac was one of 25 men and women enslaved by the Lefferts. The Dutch owners ran a 300-acre farm off the hard labor of men like Isaac, until he found freedom.

"A lot of people enslaved in Kings County escaped to Manhattan for anonymity," Dr. Yeats said.

The Lefferts house is still standing in Prospect Park, but the stories of the enslaved who built the house and grew the crops have never been known or told until now.

Dr. Yeats, who is a historian, is diving into historical archives to honor those who were once considered least among us.

"It's so important to take the idea of enslaved people and make it richer than what we see in media," said Shanna Sabio of the Flatbush African Burial Ground. "To establish the interior of the lives of my ancestors, it's made me feel sense of pride."

Nero is another man with ties to the Lefferts House.

Dr. Yeats said John Lefferts purchased Nero when he was 17 years old in 1811, presumably to run the farm. By the time Nero was 25, shortly after Isaac escaped, he was listed in the 1820 census as a free man with his wife and daughter.

With freedom in hand, records show Nero's daughter went on to marry a conductor in the Underground Railroad. His son would die in the Civil War fighting for freedom.

"Being in spaces like this and having access to history, helps us to look back with empathy and look back holistically," said Friends of Abolitionist Place member Tricia Olayinka Ben-Davies.

There was also Flora, who not only cooked but also healed with her knowledge of medicinal herbs.

"Betty was actually Flora's daughter," Dr. Yeats said. "Born in this house and worked in this house until she passed. She was freed by New York State law when she was 40 years old, but continued to work for the Lefferts family."

Their stories don't end with their lives and efforts are now underway to connect these names with their living descendants.

"It's beyond Black history -- it's all our history," Sabio said.

ALSO READ: Walking tours fill in the blanks of Black history one step at a time

Kemberly Richardson has more on Black Gotham Experience.


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