Some Americans have a passing knowledge of John Brown, the first citizen executed by the US government for treason. That treason was, in effect, an effort to free enslaved Black people and help them escape to Canada. Brown’s farm, a historic site, is located near Lake Placid in upstate New York, but often omitted in the story of the Underground Railroad is the role that New York City—specifically numerous locations in Downtown Brooklyn—played.
African Americans engaged in anti-slavery and abolitionist movements in the City before the Revolutionary War. Yet slavery in the state was not finally abolished until 1827—New York approved gradual emancipation in 1799, making it the next to last of the Northern states to vote to outlaw the practice. Abolitionists in Downtown Brooklyn continued their work throughout the 19th century to be at the hub of a movement that would change America.
Here are a few key sites on Brooklyn’s stretch of the Underground Railroad.
57 Orange St., entry at 75 Hicks St., Brooklyn Heights
Built in Brooklyn Heights in 1849, Plymouth Church was one of the nation’s foremost centers of antislavery sentiment. The minister at the time was Henry Ward Beecher, an ardent abolitionist who was a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, writer of antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As with much of American history, the church has a complicated past. The church garden’s statue of Beecher and bas-relief of Abraham Lincoln were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who created Mount Rushmore. Borglum was a known associate and sympathizer of the Ku Klux Klan and was hired despite the church’s anti-slavery message. The church still has an active congregation and, in normal times, runs tours on Sundays after services and on Mondays and Tuesdays for groups and students (tours are currently on hold).
227 Abolitionist Place
227 Duffield St., Downtown Brooklyn
This unremarkable-looking building has been a pizza shop, a beauty salon and even a fabric store, but in February 2021 it became NYC’s latest landmark—and a month later was purchased by the City in an act of preservation. The address was once the home of Brooklyn abolitionists Thomas and Harriet Truesdell. The Greek Revival home was built around 1847 and purchased by the Truesdell family in 1851, just a year after the Fugitive Slave Act passed. The family were close associates of William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist from Boston, and many of their neighbors were also prominent abolitionists. The former owner, who sold the building to the City, believes the tunnels in the basement once led to Old Bridge Street Church, fueling the belief that Duffield was a hotbed of the Underground Railroad and that hundreds, possibly thousands, of enslaved people passed through this tiny Brooklyn block.
Old Bridge Street Church
311 Bridge St., Downtown Brooklyn
This preserved piece of 1847 Greek Revival architecture is located at the former corner of Myrtle Avenue and Bridge Street, now part of MetroTech Center. Once known as the Brooklyn African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church and now an NYU Poly admissions office, this was home to the first Black Christian congregation in Brooklyn—one that officially formed in the 1810s. Hosting well-known leaders such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass in its pulpit, the church provided sanctuary for fleeing slaves before and during the Civil War, as well as during the Draft Riots of 1863. Young Susan Smith McKinney, the church organist at the end of the war, went on to become the first Black woman physician in New York State, cementing Bridge Street Church as a symbolic bridge of progression for New York’s Black community.
85 S. Oxford St., Fort Greene
This church hosted important figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. Its first pastor, Theodore L. Cuyler, was lesser known than Henry Ward Beecher but just as important to the abolitionist movement. Cuyler publicly pressured President Lincoln to put a swift end to slavery to unify the country. Built around the start of the Civil War—with stained-glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany added in the 1890s—the church has underground tunnels in its cellar, typically an important feature in buildings that served to hide slaves.
Friends Meeting House
110 Schermerhorn St., Downtown Brooklyn
Friends Meeting House and School (the latter was added in 1902) was built by the Society of Friends, aka the Quakers. The Quakers preached that slavery was a sin and played a large part in the anti-slavery movement in Brooklyn. This building was likely a stop on the Underground Railroad and still hosts an active church and high school that hold programs to fight racism.
Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn Bridge Park
The landing was an entryway via boat into Brooklyn Heights for ships leaving the Mid-Atlantic region with escaped slaves. Upon arrival at Fulton Ferry, escapees could receive cover and various forms of aid in areas of Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights and other areas in and around Downtown Brooklyn. The Fulton Ferry District is on the National Register of Historic Places and comprises the ferry landing plus 15 nearby buildings that date back to 1830. Among the area’s associations with the movement for freedom is that it held the (now-demolished) site for the first Brooklyn school for free Blacks.