In the decades before the Civil War, tens of thousands of enslaved people of African descent made their way from the South to the North via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safehouses run by abolitionists. One likely stop was located at 227 Duffield Place in downtown Brooklyn, which remains standing to this day just off from the Fulton Mall though it is now surrounded by boutique hotels. Since the building’s owner Mama Joy Chatel passed away in 2014, her daughter Shawné Lee has carried on her efforts to establish this dwelling as a museum and cultural center commemorating Brooklyn’s resistance to slavery.
In 2007, Chatel defeated the state’s attempt to use eminent domain to tear down the building. She had the support of Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), then-City Councilmembers Charles Barron and Leticia James and attorney Jennifer Levy. Now known as 227 Abolitionist Place, this site was to be turned into an underground parking lot below Willoughby Square Park, the “anchor” of the Downtown Brooklyn Plan. This “upzoning”, passed by City Council in 2004, is what unleashed the development of the numerous high rises that now blight the downtown Brooklyn skyline
The dream of creating a museum and cultural center remain in jeopardy due to zoning and financial problems. I spoke with Shawné Lee, who expressed her commitment to fulfill her mother’s vision. She and supporters are currently organizing a gala performance featuring fusion band Resura Arkestra, griot band Kakande and Abun Dance Academy to take place Sunday April 17 at Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue. Honorees will be Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo and University of Maryland archeologist Dr. Cheryl LaRoche, whose work disproved the assertions of the state’s expert justifying the destruction of 227 Duffield Place. For more information, go to http://www.227abolitionistplace.net/events.