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'Underground Railroad' house won't be seized

New York had planned a parking garage where runaway slaves may once have hidden.

January 27, 2008|Verena Dobnik | Associated Press

NEW YORK — After years of battling the city, a group of New Yorkers has saved an old Brooklyn house they believe once sheltered slaves fleeing the South.

The city has pledged it will not seize the property, which supporters say was a stop on the Underground Railroad and which was to be demolished to make room for an underground parking garage.

The brick town house 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.

The other homes' fates are 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.

The seven Duffield Houses along Duffield and Gold streets are at the center of a redevelopment project that calls for more than 4 million square feet of new retail, commercial and luxury housing in the historically low-income, black community.

"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 Families United for Racial and Economic and Equality, South Brooklyn Legal Services sued in June to save the buildings, saying the city failed to examine their historical significance.

The agreement to save 227 Duffield was signed at the end of November 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 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; a number of homes and churches there have verified connections with the Underground Railroad.

The report concluded that there was no "positive evidence" that the seven houses were part of this network that sheltered fleeing slaves.

Still, the city's own researchers said the property was "quite possibly" linked to the Underground Railroad.

City Councilwoman Letitia James had accused city officials 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 Duffield Houses advocated for the preservation of 227 Duffield, built in 1848 and owned by 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.

"I want to thank the mayor for listening to our plea," said Joy Chatel, an owner of 227 Duffield who runs a cultural center and museum in the home with her daughter.

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