by Ellis C, BFS Class of 2021
You could make history with just a few words.
As of right now, the Landmark Preservation Commission is considering 227 Duffield Street, now Abolitionist Place as a candidate for landmark preservation. We in the BFS community agree with the June 30, 2020 vote by the Commissioners that its social significance is profoundly important and should be saved. Sabine Aronowsky, Brooklyn Native, and long time friend of the former building owner Mama Joy has said, “It’s heartbreaking. This is not a new fight; this is a fight that we’ve been fighting for decades at this point, and it’s a history that’s been passed down for generations…” To let this important history vanish with the building would be irresponsible.
Archeology and History expert Dr. Cheryl LaRoche says “227 Duffield is THE most exciting location of The Underground Railroad research in the country.” Many experts have agreed, citing several factors, including its proximity to Historical Black churches like our very own Bridge Street Church, just steps away from both BFS locations who aided in the efforts to hide runaway slaves.
Images of Bridge Street AME
227 Duffield was also important as a hub in the network because the Brooklyn and Manhattan docks were constant destinations of trade with the Southern Slave states, whose ships carried both goods from the South along with African-Americans liberating themselves. If enslaved freedom-seekers found their way to Brooklyn, the network made it easy to travel through Long Island to get to boats heading north to Massachusetts or Canada.
Somehow, the question remains about how much of 227 Duffield contributes to its significance. This is where you come in. The narrowest focus is on the Abolitionist activities of Thomas and Harriet Truesdell residents from 1851 to 1863, and the larger vision the LPC seems to be considering is their family’s connection to the building until 1921. This barely touches the surfaces of the intrinsic value that 227 Duffield deserves.
I’m asking the BFS community to step up and lend your voices to the effort and give the courageous actions shown through this community their time in the light.
If you’re still unconvinced of the importance of 227 Duffield, there’s much more to be said.
The Truesdell’s decided to move to the block because of the network of activists, which included Black churches, prominent Abolitionists including William Harned, the community of Plymouth Church, and Augustus Storrs who lived across the street.
The Truesdell’s were leaders in multiple social movements. In 1829 Thomas Truesdell was listed in The Genius of Universal Emancipation as the agent for Providence, Rhode Island. In 1838, Harriet Truesdell was an officer of the Anti-Slavery Convention of Women, at a time when women were not accepted in Abolitionist organizations. She gathered with many women who would be known as founders of the Women’s Movement at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.
The New York Times on August 2, 1855, was devoted to the Emancipation celebrations with Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. On the front page, listed among the “Notable Men” was Thomas Truesdell and his family. Garrison mentioned the Truesdell family fondly, and he stayed with them when he visited New York, though we do not have evidence that he visited 227 Duffield.
Thomas Truesdell sold slave-free cotton and was prominent as a Utopian. These are not strictly speaking Abolitionist activities, but show how he was connected to various social movements. They remained close to other noted Abolitionists, including Juliana, Arthur, and Lewis Tappan.
The network of activists did not disappear after Harriet passed away and Thomas moved to New Jersey. On March 7, 2020, the legacy was apparent at the street co-naming ceremony for Ida B. Wells, who lived on Gold Street between Willoughby and Flatbush. She moved there after her press was burned down in Memphis, and to be close to the women like Dr. Susan Smith McKinney and Sarah Smith Garnet, who supported Wells financially and morally. These women also founded the first African-American women’s suffrage club in Brooklyn in 1888, and Dr. Susan Smith McKinney was not only the first African-American woman doctor in New York, but she played the organ at the Bridge Street Church for 20 years in what is now MetroTech.
In the 1980s, Downtown Brooklyn again became iconic for Black culture. Biz Markie penned these words about the Albee Square Mall: “You wouldn’t think it’s a store, you would think it’s my home. Cause when I come in the place, then I hang up a sign/Reads ‘home sweet home,’ this house is mine.” It was at this time that Joy “Mama Joy” Monroe turned 227 Duffield into an iconic political/cultural center. She treated it as a refuge for anyone who needed a home, much like the Truesdells. It became a rehearsal studio and a hair salon, both expressions of a positive image of Black culture. She was a founder of the African drum circle in Prospect Park.
So when the Bloomberg administration tried to demolish her home via eminent domain abuse starting in 2003, the ground was set for an epic struggle. Countless politicians came to her house, including Letitia James, Hakeem Jeffries, John Liu, and more. Many of these same elected officials came to speak at her funeral in 2014. The struggle was front-page news in several newspapers and was even celebrated as the story of the year in the Brooklyn Paper in 2007. While we thought we had won, a private developer submitted a demolition permit in 2019, and the spirit of Mama Joy returned and her story again became national news.
The developer who wants to demolish 227 Duffield claims ignorance about the importance of the building. A quick web search will reveal extensive evidence, and just looking at the Abolitionist Place street sign shows that there has been a public acknowledgment of the history of the block. The front windows when they acquired the building had multiple massive signs about its history. If they didn’t notice the front window of the building they want to destroy, how can we believe a word they say?
Mama Joy remains an iconic figure in Brooklyn and beyond. We urge you to consider her legacy in the designation of 227 as an individual landmark.