Local activists fight to save Brooklyn home believed to be part of Underground Railroad

ByToby Hershkowitz & Brandon Cook WABC logo
Thursday, February 6, 2020
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DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN, Brooklyn (WABC) -- Local activists are fighting to save a home in Brooklyn, believed to be a part of the Underground Railroad.

Half a block from a gym, a few doors down from a new hotel and next to a brewpub with a sign boasting of 'atomic wings,' lies a modest brick building that some believe was part of the Underground Railroad.

It was built in 1848, and in a few weeks, it could be a pile of rubble.

The building located at 227 Duffield St. is 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.

"Harriet and Thomas Truesdell were living here at the time the Fugitive Slave Act was passed," said Aleah Bacquie Vaughn, Executive Director of Circle for Justice Innovations.

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


For decades, activists like Bacquie Vaughn have been making that case to the city in hopes the building would be granted landmark status.

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."

Joy Chatel passed away in 2014, and in the years since, 227 Duffield St. has fallen into the hands of new owners who have applied for a demolition permit.

Activists like Bacquie Vaughn and Rothblatt are still fighting to have the home designated as a landmark so it can be turned into a museum.

Bacquie Vaughn said the city has proposed that they put up a statue instead.

"You can put up a monument here, a plaque here, that does not have the same impact as touching the same stones that these people who were escaping slavery touched," Rothblatt said. "Coming here will change you."

Protests have been staged, fundraisers held, and a change.org petition to save the home has more than 5,500 signatures as of this writing.

Raul Rothblatt

"If folks want to save this house, they can go on change.org and look for 227 Duffield Street," Bacquie Vaughn said. "That is going to help us get more numbers and, hopefully, the Landmark Preservation Commission will save the house."

Don't miss more incredible stories in honor of Black History Month.

Sandra Bookman reports on the Brooklyn home belived to be part of the Underground Railroad.