Event Review: Brooklyn’s Soapbox Gallery Hosts Fundraiser to Save Underground Railroad Property…“There are things in this world more valuable than a dollar.”

Save Our Brooklyn Abolitionist HomeDate: December 19, 2014
Venue: Soapbox Gallery (NY)

Event review by Dawoud Kringle

New York City has a long and colorful history. While much of it was inspirational, much of it was also ugly. There was a time when New York City was the financial capital of the slave trade in North America. The Underground Railroad was a institution that resisted the industry and social convention of selling human beings as property.

In Brooklyn, NY, the building at 227 Duffield (a.k.a. Abolitionist Place) was owned by important but forgotten abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell. They were former members of the Rhode Island Anti-Slavery Convention, members of the Anti-Slavery Society, and colleagues of members of the New York State Vigilance Society. Harriet Truesdell also sat on the planning committee of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women of 1838. They’d also run a cotton business that actually paid its laborers and did not rely on slavery – a rarity in the 19th century – and used their business as part of the Underground Railroad.

To this day, evidence of the tunnels connecting buildings or houses still exists. The family that presently owns it has lived in it for decades.

High-rise hotels and other soulless architectural monstrosities now threaten to encroach upon the home, as they had throughout the Five Boroughs. In contrast to this, a group of activists are working to preserve a property that is the last remaining artifact of a time when Brooklynites fought against slavery and the slave economy.

Downtown Brooklyn is being redesigned by the Downtown Brooklyn Redevelopment Plan (sponsored by the city’s Economic Development Corporation, and the Department of City Planning). They declared eminent domain. Their plan affects about sixty blocks in Brooklyn. The Duffield property is located where a park and an underground parking garage would be built. As part of this ongoing project, the consulting firm called AKRF supported by former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, AKRF investigated six properties for their possible historical value (including 227 Duffield). Eight of their twelve “peer reviewers” expressed concerns about the firm’s evaluation of the property and of the absence of any real archeological investigation into the other six buildings. In March of 2007, AKRF concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to suggest the properties had any connection to the Underground Railroad (evidence exists that they paid off some historians to lie about the historical authenticity of the property in support of their project.)

On August of 2007, Bloomberg announced the creation of a commission to commemorate abolitionist activity in Brooklyn. The same day, the New York Development Corporation (NYCEDC) issued a request for proposals for the development of the parking lot that would necessitate the demolition of the Duffield property. Soon after, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development approved eminent domain over the property.

The owner of the property, the late Momma Joy Chatel, her late husband, her daughter Shawné Lee, Raul Rothblatt (composer/cellist/bassist, activist, etc.), and historian Jim Driscoll (Vice President of the Queens Historical Society) began their own research into the property’s history. Much of the research was through the Queens Historical Society (the Brooklyn Historical Society mysteriously closed down when they found out about the research Momma Joy was doing). Chatel, and her colleague Lewis Greenstein formed the Duffield Street Block Association, and partnered with groups such as Families United for Radical and Economic Justice, and Develop, Don’t Destroy Brooklyn. With the help of Jennifer Levy (of the South Brooklyn Legal Services), a lawsuit was filed against the city, alleging that AKRF had been deliberately biased and negligent in their investigation. Part of the lawsuit requested that the city commissions another study of Duffield Street through a firm chosen in an open bidding process.

In 2013, Momma Joy passed away. The fight continued.

Eventually, Bloomberg and the corporate developers found opposition they couldn’t overcome, and were defeated. The $500,000 they’d spent to support their lies and greed was wasted.

That said, the fight to preserve the historical property is not over. On Friday, December 19th 2014 (which was also Rothblatt‘s 50th birthday), a fundraiser was held at Brooklyn’s Soapbox Gallery, in connection with their gofundme campaign.

Rothblatt and Lee spoke at length about the project. They shared some fascinating details about the history of the property, of their fight to preserve it, and of their plans to turn the building into a cultural museum and performance space.

After their monologues, Kakande, led by Famoro Dioubate, offered the musical performance of the night. Kakande plays a genre of music called “Mande” which dates back to the court of Sundiata Keita of 13th century Guinea.

They began with a serious sounding piece. The complex syncopations that dominate almost all African music formed a hypnotic beauty that enraptured everyone in attendance.

Dioubate led the band with balafon and vocals. At times, the djembe matched the trap drums, and other times offered dramatic counterparts and polyrhythms. The two guitarists, bass, and the addition of Raul on cello provided an Interesting and unexpected flavor to the dense melodic and rhythmic tapestry the group wove. Dioubate offered some absolutely virtuosic work on the balafon.

Throughout their set, the musicians explored a wide spectrum of moods and musical processes. Within it all, was the joy and exuberance that seems to permeate this music.

The attendants became quite animated and demonstrative with their joyful reaction to the music. People danced everywhere; some couldn’t restrain themselves from joining the musicians on a few occasions.

The event was as enjoyable as it was instructive and inspirational. To quote Shanae, “There are things in this world more valuable than a dollar.” The lesson here is that the heartless and soulless elite with no god but money can be beaten into submission. They are not as powerful as they want you to believe, and in the face of dedicated and sincere people fighting for a just cause is an ultimately worthless and impotent Goliath to be brought down.