A Few More Clues in Brooklyn
By Danielle Douglas
The heritage of The Underground Railroad signifies the depth of Black strength through struggle. The network=s mere existence speaks to one of Black America=s extraordinary moments in history, hence the need for the preservation of discovered safe houses and checkpoints along the route.
Within New York State, there are over 30 recognized sites, several of which are located in Brooklyn, such as the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, and the original Bridge Street Church. However, a local group of homeowners on Duffield Street believe they have found another station beneath their homes in downtown Brooklyn. But the homes are slated for demolition to make way for Willoughby Square Park, the centerpiece of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan=s new office development.
In an effort to help raise funds to save the Duffield safe houses of the Underground Railroad, MAAT Organic Summer Camp held ARise Up My Children,@ a dance and theatrical performance at the Charles Moore Dance Theater in late August. The camp=s founder, Joy Chatel, is one of several Duffield residents who are in danger of losing their homes as a result of the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan.Chatel along with Lewis Greenstein, president of the Duffield Neighborhood Association (DNA), contend that three of the buildings on Duffield, 223, 227 and 233, are safe houses of the Underground Railroad and must be given historic status.The DNA, led by Greenstein and Chatel, has mounted a fight against the city since receiving notice in January of 2004 that their homes were going to be taken away under eminent domain. Since retiring two years ago, Greenstein has spent every waking moment researching the possibility of the subbasement shafts in his and Chatel=s homes being a part of the historic escape route.
Greenstein found property records that indicated that the homes were owned by known abolitionists who were members of the famed Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, a noted abolitionist gathering place and a recognized station.
After presenting his beliefs to the City Planning Commission, the board requested further proof, which Greenstein was unable to provide in the short amount of time given. Soon after the city=s Economic Development Corporation, who is pushing for the development, presented a report denying the property=s connection to the Underground Railroad. However, in June of 2004, city council members found that much of the EDC=s report was falsified; several historical preservation groups that the corporation claimed to have spoken to, denied ever being contacted. Nevertheless, the city council=s Land Use Committee voted 15-0 in favor of passing the development plan, pending the Duffield Street public hearing.
Several council members, including Letitia James, Al Vann and Charles Barron, voted for the plan, on the condition that another study be conducted and a hearing held. AMore research needs to be done, but the evidence is compelling and it is apparent to me that these homes need to be preserved,@ said Councilwoman James.
Since the vote, there has been some contention between the DNA and the archaeologists, who the residents believe are not qualified enough to determine the validity of the site; the residents want to hire their own panel, hence the reason they are fund-raising. As a result, there is still no definitive date for the public hearing. Another study is being conducted, and a panel of historians and academics will review its results.
In the meantime,Greenstein, who owns 233 Duffield, and Chatel, who owns 227 Duffield, continue to educate the community about their plight and refuse to allow the city to bulldoze over Black History. AI can=t sell my people out; those houses need to stay there so the children can see them. They need to be able to see the space, they need to crawl through the womb of time so they=ll know where they came from,@ said Chatel.