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Joy Chatel

Joy Chatel

also known as "Mama" Joy

Joy Chatel led a community-based campaign to stop the razing of her home at 227 Duffield Street in Brooklyn and to preserve the abolitionist history of downtown Brooklyn.

People: Cheryl LaRoche
Organizations: 227 Abolitionist Place, Downtown Brooklyn Campaign for Accountable Development, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE)
Places: 227 Duffield Street, Fulton Mall
Public Policy: Eminent Domain
Above: Mama Joy Chatel. Image courtesy of FUREE

Joy Chatel was a long-time Brooklyn resident and community activist, particularly engaged in supporting youth in her neighborhood through the public schools, as a long-time member of the PTA in Districts 13 and 22, and through coaching extracurricular sports.1

Chatel moved into 227 Duffield Street, later 227 Abolitionist Place, in 1987 after marrying Albert Chatel. The house had been owned by his family since 1948, and Chatel inherited it upon his death. In 2004 she started a decade-long battle to preserve her home, engaging and organizing historians, activists, and elected officials around the idea of preserving the history of the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn and a piece of the Underground Railroad through her house. She expanded her efforts, becoming a member of Families United for Racial and Economic Equity (FUREE), and focusing her activism and community organization on unfair zoning and irresponsible development. She was a strong proponent for community development initiated and led by community members. Her activism championed preservation as a means to keep the cultural and social history of Brooklyn accessible.2

Chatel died on January 8, 2014 in Brooklyn, leaving her work at 227 Abolitionist Place to her daughter and her community to carry on.3

227 Abolitionist Place (Organizing Group)

Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE)
Member, 2004-2014
Board member, 2009

Duffield Street Block Association

Downtown Brooklyn Campaign for Accountable Development
Board member, 2009

Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance

227 Duffield Street was the home of Thomas and Harriet Truesdell, known abolitionists, in the 1850s, during a time when the Underground Railroad was active in Brooklyn. Escaping enslaved people could make it to Brooklyn as secret passengers on the ships that regularly moved goods and people between the southern states and the many international ports of New York City. Plymouth Church, a known underground railroad stop, is less than a mile from the houses on Duffield Street; Bridge Street African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (now Wunsch Hall at the Polytechnic University) is only two blocks away.4

Chatel became the owner of the house in 1998, raising her grandchildren and operating her hair salon there.5 In January of 2004, she received notice that the city intended to take her home by eminent domain for redevelopment as part of the Downtown Brooklyn Development Plan, a neighborhood revitalization plan aimed at creating a new financial district in the Fulton Mall area. Chatel had received oral traditions from the house’s previous owners and elder community members saying the house had been a safe haven stop on the Underground Railroad. She, along with neighbors, had found seemingly supporting evidence in their basements, most notably a sealed archway that they believed led to connecting subgrade tunnels.6 Chatel decided to fight the city’s plan to raze the home. She met with Cheryl LaRoche, an academic and historian of African American heritage, who visited the site and reviewed a later city-sponsored report. LaRoche felt the findings clearly supported abolitionist activity at 227 Duffield and neighboring properties. Other historians also noted the cultural significance of the property as the home of the Truedells, notable for their work outside of the underground railroad.7

Chatel organized rallies and events at 227 Duffield and began giving tours of the home and basement to community members and visitors; she founded 227 Abolitionist Place as an organizing group to convert the property to a museum for the history of the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement in Brooklyn.8 Chatel’s organization around preserving her home and those of her neighbors was supported by the Four Borough Neighborhood Preservation Alliance, of which she was a member, the Historic Districts Council, and the New York Landmarks Conservancy, all of whom pushed for landmark designation for the properties at 227, 231, and 233 Duffield Street. That effort gained little traction with the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) at that time; the LPC chair instead suggested that a plaque might be placed at the site, presumably after the demolition of the properties.9

In 2007, the city acknowledged the evidence established by Chatel and the historians and professionals she organized; the section of Duffield Street between Fulton Street and Willoughby Avenue was given an alternate name – Abolitionist Place.10 Later that year Joy won a settlement in the lawsuit she had co-filed with FUREE, with the help of South Brooklyn Legal Services, against the city. The settlement stipulated that the city would not seize the property through eminent domain nor demolish it, and it agreed to redesign the park and underground parking garage planned for the site.11 While the lawsuit saved her home, Chatel’s neighbors were not successful and ultimately their homes were demolished, despite the efforts of Chatel and others.

Joy Chatel died suddenly in 2014, but the movement she started has been continued by the community she mobilized. In response to public outcry after demolition permits were filed for 227 Duffield in June of 2019, the designation of the property was brought to a public hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) in July of 2020.12 The LPC heard supporting testimony from dozens of community members and advocates and received supporting letters from nearly a hundred more. A vote on the designation is expected later in 2020.13

  1. “Owners of a Former Underground Railroad in Brooklyn Fight to Turn Site into Heritage Museum,” Brooklyn Reader, 14 January 2016, https://www.bkreader.com/2016/01/14/former-underground-railroad-brooklyn-way-becoming-heritage-museum/.
  2. “About: In Loving Memory of Joy Chatel, Founder,” 227 Abolitionist Place, Revised 2020, http://227abolitionistplace.com/.
  3. Shane Miller, “‘Mama Joy’ Chatel Passes Away,” Brooklyn Downtown Star, 16 January 2014, http://www.brooklyndowntownstar.com/view/full_story/24400723/article–Mama-Joy–Chatel-passes-away?instance=lead_story_left_column.
  4. John Strausbaugh, “On the Trail of Brooklyn’s Underground Railroad,” New York Times, 12 October 2007, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/arts/12expl.html.
  5. Liliana Bernal, “Abolitionist Place: A Piece of African-American History in Brooklyn,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1 March 218, https://brooklyneagle.com/articles/2018/03/01/video-abolitionist-place-a-piece-of-african-american-history-in-brooklyn/.
  6. “Owners of a Former Underground Railroad in Brooklyn”
  7. Sewell Chan, “A Juneteenth Riddle: Was Duffield Street a Stop on the Underground Railroad?”, The New York Times City Room Blogs, 19 June 2007, https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/a-juneteenth-riddle-was-duffield-street-a-stop-on-the-underground-railroad/.
  8. “About: In Loving Memory of Joy Chatel, Founder”. 227 Abolitionist Place website. https://www.227abolitionistplace.com/.
  9. “LPC Turns Its Back on Unerground Railroad Houses,” Brownstoner, 11 June 2017, https://www.brownstoner.com/history/lpc-turns-its-b/.
  10. John Strausbaugh, “On the Trail”
  11. “Breaking: 227 Duffield Saved from Eminent Domain Death,
    Brownstoner, 30 November 2007, https://www.brownstoner.com/development/breaking227-duf/.
  12. Craig Hubert, “Demo Permits Filed for Historic Abolitionist House on Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn,” Brownstoner, 10 July 2020, https://www.brownstoner.com/development/underground-railroad-downtown-brooklyn-227-duffield-street-demolition-abolitionist-landmark-levin/.
  13. Susan De Vries, “Locals Overwhelmingly Favor Landmarking Downtown Brooklyn Abolitionist Home,” Brownstoner, 14 July 2020, https://www.brownstoner.com/architecture/downtown-brooklyn-abolitionist-house-227-duffield-street-truesdell-underground-railroad-landmark-hearing/.