Posted on January 29, 2021

A Monument Honoring Brooklyn Abolitionists Stalls Under Scrutiny

Zachary Small, New York Times, January 25, 2021

When the artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed was commissioned to conceive of a project honoring Brooklyn abolitionists, she wanted to turn the idea of a monument on its head. She proposed to reinvent the design of the anticipated Willoughby Square Park in Downtown Brooklyn with pavement engravings and bronze placards, which would offer questions and prompts to highlight the borough’s antislavery movement and its legacy.

But the preservationists and activists who, for 20 years, have pushed the city to honor Brooklyn’s abolitionist roots were displeased with Ms. Rasheed’s designs, complaining they were too abstract at a time when women and people of color are fighting to see themselves figuratively represented in New York’s monuments.

“We are not going to settle for plaques and engravings, which people will walk right past,” said Shawné Lee, whose family helped ignite the neighborhood’s preservation efforts. “I want to see historical figures represented, because these days we need to see people who look like us in the city’s monuments.”

Since at least 2019, Ms. Lee and other activists have proposed a monument including Black women like the educator and abolitionist Sarah J. Garnet and the investigative journalist Ida B. Wells. Ms. Lee is an owner of 227 Duffield Street in Downtown Brooklyn, a house adjacent to the park that historians now believe was part of the Underground Railroad. It is currently under review for landmark status after it was threatened by eminent domain to make room for the 1.15-acre park, whose completion is estimated in 2022. {snip}

The confrontation played out last week during a meeting of the Public Design Commission, which reviews permanent monuments and works of art on city property. After listening to public comment, the commissioners voted unanimously to table Ms. Rasheed’s proposal, a $689,000 dollar project steered by the Department of Cultural Affairs and the city’s Economic Development Corporation.


Preventing the destruction of 227 Duffield Street, which was home to the abolitionists Harriet and Thomas Truesdell in the mid-1800s, has energized community advocates who have promoted the neighborhood’s role as a stop in the Underground Railroad. Recent efforts have included renaming Duffield Street as Abolitionist Place and installing a plaque to Ida B. Wells, who lived in the area and, in the 1890s, documented lynching in the South. The local community board has even renamed the park, but the city has not yet recognized it: Abolitionist Place Park.

“Whatever we build in Downtown Brooklyn should rival the Statue of Liberty,” said Raul Rothblatt, who has fought to preserve the area’s history for nearly 20 years.