Home possibly used in Underground Railroad spared

(12/03/07) BROOKLYN ? Some residents in downtown Brooklyn are celebrating Monday after the city has promised not to seize a building many believe was part of the Underground Railroad.

The property was to be demolished to make room for an underground parking garage. The brick townhouse was one of seven old homes slated for demolition as part of the redevelopment of downtown Brooklyn, a commercial and civic center that today bears few traces of the residential neighborhood that stood before the Civil War.

?It?s a joint victory for the city and for the people, for all people,? said Joy Chatel, an owner of 227 Duffield who runs a cultural center and museum in the home with her daughter.

The fate of the other homes is still unclear, but activists had a rare victory to celebrate in a larger conflict that has pitted the developers transforming Brooklyn against citizens trying to prevent the "Manhattanification" of the borough. "So many of us in the community did not want to see the Underground Railroad become an underground parking lot," said Randy Leigh, an area resident. On behalf of the community group Families United for Racial and Economic and Equality, South Brooklyn Legal Services sued in June to try to save the buildings, saying the city failed to examine their historical significance. The agreement to save 227 Duffield St. was signed last Thursday by the city and the plaintiffs as part of a settlement in the case, said Jennifer Levy, the plaintiffs' attorney. There is still uncertainty about whether the home was ever a stop on the Underground Railroad. The city's Economic Development Corp. commissioned a report that found evidence of strong abolitionist feelings in the neighborhood during that era. But it concluded that there was no "positive evidence" that the seven houses along Duffield and Gold streets were part of the network that sheltered slaves fleeing the South. City Council Member Letitia James had accused the city of trying to erase black history. "I can't imagine a world that denies our history or legacy," she said. Many of the historians and scholars commissioned by the city to review its research on the so-called Duffield Houses advocated for the preservation of 227 Duffield, built in 1848 and owned by the prominent abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Lee-Truesdell. Some of the experts pointed out that the city had never hired an archaeologist to search the properties for clues. Current homeowners have pointed to tunnels connecting the houses and secret passageways in which slaves could have hidden while the houses were searched, as well as unexplained architectural oddities in the subbasements from 227-235 Duffield.

This story was written using Associated Press wire reports.

Related information: Eminent domain critics question blight label City to raze Duffield St. homes through eminent domain City Council to decide fate of Duffield Street houses


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