BROOKLYN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

Encore: June 16, 2021

After decades of local activism, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission has unanimously voted to designate a small brick home in Brooklyn as an historic landmark. In the mid-19thcentury, 227 Duffield Street was owned by abolitionist couple Harriet and Thomas Truesdell and there is reason to believe that their home may have served as a temporary stop for those escaping slavery on the underground railroad. Though the city co-named a section of Duffield street, “abolitionist place” back in 2007, they have resisted giving the home landmark status, until now. Historian and preservationist, Michael Henry Adams joins us tonight with an important lesson on honoring our history.

Aired February 25, 2021.

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M JACK FORD.

AFTER DECADES OF LOCAL ACTIVISM, THE NEW YORK CITY LAND MARK PRESERVATION COMMISSION HAS UNANIMOUSLY VOTED TO DESIGNATE A SMALL BRICK BUILDING IN BROOKLYN AS AN HISTORIC LANDMARK.

MID-19th CENTURY, 227 DUFFIELD STREET WAS OWNED BY ABOLITIONIST COUPLE HARRIET AND THOMAS TRUESDALE.

IT'S REASON TO BELIEVE, ACCORDING TO THE ADVOCATES, THAT THEIR HOME MAY WELL SERVE AS A TEMPORARY STOP AS THOSE ESCAPING SLAVERY IN THE UPPED GROUND RAILROAD.

THOUGH THE CITY CONAMED A SECTION OF DUFFIELD STREET ABOLITIONIST PLACE BACK IN 2007, THEY HAVE RESISTED GIVING THE HOMELA HOME LANDMARK STATUS UNTIL NOW.

JOINING ME TO DISCUSS THE HISTORY OF THE LOCATION AND SIGNIFICANCE OF ITS LANDMARK DESIGNATION IS HISTORIAN AND PRESERVATIONIST MICHAEL HENRY ADAMS.

MICHAEL, WELCOME TO YOU.

THANK YOU FOR JOINING US.

OH, THANK YOU SO MUCH.

GREAT FUN TO TALK WITH YOU THIS AFTERNOON.

I'M DELIGHTED TO CHAT WITH YOU.

LET'S START WITH THIS NOTION OF A DESIGNATION.

LANDMARK STATUS, JUST WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

YOU KNOW, NEW YORK CITY HAS THE BEST PRESERVATION LAW IN THE NATION AND ONE OF THE OLDEST.

IT MEANS WITHOUT THERE BEING PROOF BY THE OWNER THAT THEY WILL EXPERIENCE SOME HARDSHIP IF THEY MAKE CHANGES OR ALTERATIONS OR DEMOLITION OF A BUILDING THAT THEY CANNOT DEMOLISH IT OR CHANGE IT WITHOUT GETTING THE APPROVAL OF THE CITY GOVERNMENT.

SO THAT JUST GOES SUCH A LONG WAY TOWARDS HELPING US TO PRESERVE BUILDINGS THAT EXEMPLIFY OUR GREAT HISTORY OF THE CITY.

AND WHAT DOES THE PROCESS INVOLVE?

HOW DOES IT COME TO ME THAT A LOCATION SUCH AS THIS IS ABLE TO ACHIEVE THAT DESIGNATION?

ORDINARILY IT'S PEOPLE IN A GIVEN NEIGHBORHOOD WHO FEEL LIKE THERE'S SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT OR HISTORICAL OR ESTHETIC IMPORTANCE IN THEIR COMMUNITY SHOULD BE PROTECTED AND THEY PETITION THE LANDMARK PRESERVATION COMMISSION, THEY ASK FOR A REQUEST FOR EVALUATION, AND THEN OFTENTIMES THEY GET A FORM LETTER BACK THAT SAYS THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST IN THE WORK OF THE LANDMARK COMMISSION.

UNFORTUNATELY, THE LPC IS THE SMALLEST CITY AGENCY WITH THE SMALLEST BUDGET AND THE COMMISSIONERS DON'T RECEIVE ANY PAY, THEY'RE VOLUNTEERS, UNLIKE THE MEMBERS OF THE PLANNING COMMISSION, SO THAT REALLY PRESCRIBES WHICH PEOPLE CAN ACTUALLY AFFORD TO VOLUNTEER TO BE ON THE COMMISSION.

SO IT'S NOT AS OPEN A PROCESS AS ONE WOULD LIKE TO HOPE.

AND IT WOULD BE GREAT IF, AS IN OTHER JURISDICTIONS, CITY COUNCIL COMMISSIONERS COULD NOMINATE BUILDINGS TO BE ON THE CITY LANDMARK COMMISSION.

BUT IT GOES TO THE PROCESS, A HEARING IS HELD AFTER THE BUILDING HAS BEEN CALENDARED, AND AFTER THAT HEARING, USUALLY THE HEARING IS FAIRLY PRO FORMA.

THE HEARING BECOMES DESIGNATED AND IF APPROVED IT BECOMES OFFICIALLY LISTED AS A LANDMARK.

TELL US ABOUT THE HISTORY OF THIS BUILDING, WHAT LED TO ITS DESIGNATION.

THIS BUILDING IS VERY SPECIAL, AND IT FACED TREMENDOUS PROBLEMS, IN PART BECAUSE THIS BUILDING WAS OWNED BY THE TRUESDALE FAMILY.

AND MR. AND MRS. TRUESDALE WERE PROMINENT ACTIVISTS IN THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, ABOLITIONIST MOVEMENT.

AND SO IT'S BELIEVED WERE THEIR NEIGHBORS IN A ROW THAT EXISTED TO THE WEST OF THEIR HOUSE.

AND HOUSES THAT ARE VERY MUCH LIKE THIS HOUSE, A GROUP OF ROW HOUSES.

AND WHEN PEOPLE FIRST PETITION THE CITY TO GET THE TRUESDALE HOUSE DESIGNATED AS A LANDMARK, THEY ALSO ASK THAT THESE OTHER HOUSES BE PROTECTED AND THE CITY HAD A PLAN TO TAKE THEM ALL AND PERSIST TO TRY TO SAVE THIS ONE HOUSE.

WE FINALLY GOT THAT, THIS ONE PARTICULAR HOUSE THAT'S BEEN PROTECTED, BUT THE OTHER HOUSES HAVE ALL BEEN DEMOLISHED THAT ARE IN THAT TIME PERIOD.

THE COMMISSION INITIALLY SAID THAT, A, AS YOU SUGGESTED, A, IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO PROVE THIS HOUSE HAS BEEN ASSOCIATED WITH THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.

WELL, THAT'S NOT ANYTHING STRANGE GIVEN THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD WAS THE HIGHLY SECRETIVE OPERATION MUCH LIKE PEOPLE WHO RISK THEIR LIVES TO HIDE JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST.

THE FUTURE SLAVE ACT HAD JUST BEEN PASSED IN 19850 AND THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS OF FINES COULD BE ISSUED TO YOU FOR HIDING HIDE FUGITIVE SLAVES.

THE A TIME WHEN THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS WERE SIGNIFICANT NUMBERS.

YES, A CITY COMMISSIONER MIGHT MAKE A THOUSAND DOLLARS A YEAR AND MAYBE $500 A YEAR.

SO THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS WAS A LOT OF MONEY.

PEOPLE WERE TAKING A TREMENDOUS RISK.

AND THIS HOUSE -- THERE WERE NO FIRM DIARY ENTRIES OR LETTERS THAT SAID SOME SPECIFIC ACTIVITY OCCURRED HERE AND, OF COURSE, IN THE TIME PEOPLE DIDN'T HAVE SIGNS THAT SAID, THIS IS 227 DUFFIELD STREET.

THIS IS THE BROOKLYN STOP ON THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.

BROOKLYN WAS THIS MASSIVE PORT -- WE FORGET IT WAS ONE OF THE LARGEST CITIES IN THE COUNTRY, AND ITS COURT WAS HEAVILY INVOLVED WITH ACTIVITY DIRECTLY CONNECTED TO SLAVERY, AND EXPORTING AND IMPORTING THE GOODS OF THE SOUTH AND BRINGING COTTON TO THE NORTH TO BE SPUN TO FABRIC IN NORTHERN HILLS.

THIS ACTIVITY WAS SO PROMINENT IN THE NEW YORK AREA THAT AT THE BEGINNING OF THE CIVIL WAR OR EVEN BEFORE THE WAR IN 1860, MAYOR FERNANDO WOOD OF NEW YORK SUGGESTED THAT NEW YORK SECEDE FROM THE UNION SO THAT IT MIGHT TRADE LIKE A CITY, LIKE VENICE HAD BEEN IN THE 16th CENTURY, WITH BOTH THE NORTH AND THE SOUTH AND NOT CURTAIL A BIG PART OF ITS BUSINESS.

I WAS SURPRISED TO LEARN AT ONE POINT, IN SOME RESEARCH I WAS DOING, THAT ALBANY WAS ONE OF THE MAJOR SLAVE TRADING CENTERS IN THE COLONY, AND INDEED IN THE STATE UNTIL IT WAS BANNED.

SORT OF UNDERSCORING YOUR POINT HERE.

LET ME JUMP IN ONE SECOND IF I CAN.

LET'S SAY I'M TALKING WITH MICHAEL HENRY ADAMS, PRESERVATIONIST AND HISTORIAN.

AS YOU MENTIONED BACK RECENTLY AS 2007 THE COMMISSION SAID NO TO PROVIDING THIS HISTORIC DESIGNATION FOR THIS PROPERTY.

WHAT CHANGED BETWEEN THEN AND NOW, DO YOU THINK?

WELL, YOU KNOW, THEY SAY THAT ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL AND WHAT IS CONVERSELY TRUE IS THAT EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL.

SO BY HAVING A NEW ADMINISTRATION FROM THE BLOOMBERG ADMINISTRATION, BY HAVING THE FIRST LADY OF NEW YORK, SHERRILYN McCRAY, AND ALSO BY HAVING OUR PUBLIC ADVOCATE AND NOW OUR WONDERFUL SECRETARY OF STATE, LETITIA JAMES -- I'M SORRY, ATTORNEY GENERAL, NOT SECRETARY OF STATE, LETITIA JAMES, SHE AND MRS. McCRAY WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN CHANGING WHAT HAPPENED AT DUFFIELD STREET AND WE'RE JUST SO GRATEFUL TO THEIR INTERVENTION BECAUSE THEY MADE ALL OF THE DIFFERENCE, I THINK.

THE ATTORNEY FOR THE OWNER OF THE PROPERTY, THE OTHER PROPERTY, HAD INTENDED TO DEVELOP IT, APARTMENT BUILDING, SAID WE'RE GOING TO INCLUDE A MUSEUM FOR BLACK HISTORY IN THAT DEVELOPMENT AND THE ATTORNEY HAD SAID THAT ESSENTIALLY HIS CLIENT WAS FINANCIALLY DEVASTATED BY THE DECISION.

SO WHAT DO YOU SAY, CRITICS WHO SAID, IS IT FAIR TO LIMIT SOMEONE'S USE FOR THEIR PROPERTY BASED UPON A FINDING IT IS AT BEST PROBABLE THAT THIS PROPERTY WAS USED OR MAYBE EVEN JUST POSSIBLE THIS PROPERTY WAS USED, WHAT'S A SHORT ANSWER TO THAT CRITICISM?

THE SHORT ANSWER IS THERE'S A HARDSHIP PROVISION IN THE NEW YORK STATE LAW, AND YOU KNOW, IF YOU'RE A BUSINESS, YOU CAN OPEN YOUR BOOKS AND PROVE THAT WITHOUT THE DEVELOPMENT YOU INTENDED TO DO, THAT YOU CANNOT AFFORD TO SURVIVE.

IF YOU CAN DO THAT, YOUR BUILDING CAN BE DEMOLISHED.

BUT I CAN TELL YOU SINCE I LIVED IN NEW YORK IN 1985, THERE HAVE BEEN FEWER THAN A DOZEN PEOPLE WHO AVAILED THEMSELVES OF THAT HARDSHIP PROVISION.

SO IT'S JUST NOT A LEGITIMATE THING.

PEOPLE BUY PROPERTIES OFTENTIMES JUST TO SPECULATE THAT THEY MIGHT SOMEHOW BE ABLE TO MAKE MORE MONEY IN THE FUTURE THAN THEY ARE MAKING NOW, AND WHEN YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT THE GREAT HISTORY ENVIEWED IN THIS PLACE, WHEN YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT A PLACE THAT WAS OWNED AND LIVED IN BY ONE OF THE MOST PROMINENT ABOLITIONISTS OF HIS TIME, YOU DON'T IMAGINE THAT A PERSON LIKE THAT DID NOT AVAIL EVERY RESOURCE AT HIS -- AVAILABLE TO HIM --

RIGHT.

-- IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO UTILIZE HIS BUSINESS OF -- OF TRANSFERRING SLAVES, FORMER SLAVES, TO FREEDOM IN CANADA.

RIGHT.

SO IT GOES WITHOUT QUESTION THAT, OF COURSE, SOMETHING THAT WAS UTILIZED TO BE USEFUL TRANSFERRING PEOPLE OCCURRED IN THIS HOUSE.

LET ME ASK YOU TWO QUESTIONS, ARE THERE OTHER PARTICULAR SITES THAT YOU FEEL SHOULD BE GRANTED THIS DESIGNATION?

AND IS THE CITY DOING ENOUGH WITH REGARD TO THAT?

TWO THINGS, THERE'S A HOUSE AT NUMBER 857 AND IT WAS JUST AS MERITORIOUS AS BEING DESIGNATED AS THIS HOUSE AS BEING A CENTER OF THE ABOLITION MOVEMENT.

IT WAS BUILT BY A LEADING ABOLITIONIST NAMED DENNIS HARRIS.

HE DIDN'T LIVE THERE.

HE LIVED NEARBY, ACROSS THE STREET.

HE LOOKED DOWN ON THIS HOUSE WHICH WAS VACANT FOR TWO YEARS, THEN HE TOLD IT TO HIS PARTNER, ANOTHER PROMINENT, FERVENT ABOLITIONIST NAMED JUDGE JOHN N NEWNOUSE.

AND NEWHOUSE LIVED IN THE HOUSE FOR THE NEXT 50 YEARS.

SO THERE'S NO WAY AGAIN HE DID NOT UTILIZE THIS HOUSE SOMEHOW, SOME WAY FOR THIS NOBLE EFFORT HE WAS INVOLVED IN.

THE CITY, UNFORTUNATELY, THE MAYOR SAID RECENTLY THAT EVERY AGENCY OF THE CITY, INCLUDING THE POLICE, SUFFERED FROM SYSTEMIC RACISM AND THAT HE WANTED TO BOTH IDENTIFY AND ROOT IT OUT.

THE WAY THAT MUST BE ROOTED OUT IN TERMS OF LAND MARKING IS FOR COMMUNITIES OF COLOR TO BE GIVEN THE SAME NUMBER OF LANDMARKS THAT EXIST IN PROSPEROUS WHITE NEIGHBORHOODS, WHICH IS SIMPLY NOT THE CASE NOW.

YOU LOOK AT GREENWICH VILLAGE, TWO-THIRDS OF THE BUILDINGS PROTECTED BY LANDMARKING AND IN MANHATTAN SOMETHING LIKE 10% OF THE BUILDINGS.

HOPEFULLY THIS MIGHT MOVE THAT CONVERSATION ALONG.

OUR THANKS, MICHAEL HENRY ADAM, AND THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR COMING ON AND HELPING US UNDERSTAND ALL OF THIS PROCESS.

WE APPRECIATE IT.

WE WILL HOOK UP WITH YOU AGAIN DOWN THE ROAD.

YOU BE WELL.

I'M SO GRATEFUL TO YOU.

THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

TAKE CARE.

Funders

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