9/02/2006

Not Just an Ordinary Basement: Brooklyn NY Downtown Star, 8/31/06

By Nik Kovac

If a row of antebellum houses on Duffield Street are torn down to make way for a parking garage, then Brooklyn will lose access to a huge facet of its multi-racial history, and a dozen young children of color will lose access to a summer school for musical theater.

Both of these current resources were on full display last Saturday afternoon, as Joy Chatel and Lew Greenstein offered tours of their basements - which were likely used by DoBro abolitionists to hide fugitive slaves during the 1850s - to politicians and passersby. Then the kids put on a performance of dance, drumming, skits, and spoken word directed by Chatel's daughter, Shawne Lee.

"This is an important part of the history of the United States of America - and of the world," announced State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who had just visited the sites - which are due north of Fulton Mall and due south of MetroTech - for the first time. "We must hope we don't lose the ability to pass this on to future generations, and that we can maintain access to this part of ourselves forever."

Montgomery had been a supporter, two years ago, of the city's ambitious DoBro rezoning, but now thinks the plans should be redrawn to allow the Duffield Street houses to be maintained in perpetuity as museums.

"There are ways to do it," she told the Star while standing on the sidewalk. "The houses could even be inside a larger building."

Chatel and Greenstein, of course, would like to see their houses - both have lived in them with their families for decades - preserved not just as museums, but also as places to live. They are both willing to open up their basements to the public, and in Chatel's case, her family has already taken an active role in using the history within her home as a means of educating and inspiring the next generation.

One skit put on by the summer school her family hosts every year featured a teenage girl pretending to be a snobby member of the black community "on Pennsylvannia Avenue" in East New York. She was waiting for a bus and looking down on her neighbors, wishing she had some white friends. The other children then burst into a song and dance explaining the important role of blacks throughout world history. "We invented civilization," they told her.

Another skit featured a character called "black dummy." A ventriloquist kept calling a young boy that name, while a dancing chorus of girls sang the refrain, "He's no dummy, he's just been away too long." Eventually the young boy breaks free of the laughing ventriloquist and even turns the tables on him, when it turns out every character in the skit except for the "dummy" was a remote controlled toy robot.

Besides Montgomery, two other political candidates - both running for the same State Assembly seat - spoke at the rally before the summer school's performance. "This fight," said Bill Batson, "has given my run direction. I'd like to dedicate my race to Harriet Tubman."

Chatel quickly pointed out that, while Harriet Tubman was the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, it was a different Harriet - Harriet Trusedale - who owned Chatel's house on Duffeild Street during those ugly days in American history when slavery was still legal down south - and blacks in New York City could be sent there in chains.

Freddie Hamiltion, who is running against Batson to succeed Roger Green in the 57th Assembly District, said, "I'm here today in support of Joy. I support this effort and I support her. Joy, no matter what happens in this election, you can call on me. I don't know what help I can give you, but just ask and you'll get it."

Hamilton then made a more general point to the crowd of several dozen sitting on chairs and standing on the sidewalk. "I don't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat. This has to do with history, so that crosses any political line."

Hamilton and Batson disagree strongly on the Atlantic Yards project further east in Brooklyn, but they are a united force in the effort to save the history of the Underground Railroad on Duffield Street from being bulldozed to make way for office towers and parking.


Brooklyn NY Downtown Star: http://www.brooklyndowntownstar.com