The Guest at the Dinner Table: A Detective Story

Little has been written about the history of people of African descent in Lower Manhattan, even though their numbers were so large that our neighborhood and environs were once called “Little Africa.” Hardly anything has been documented about this area’s importance as a major hub on the Underground Railroad. Other cities have magnificent Freedom Trails, but no other city has done less to preserve these safe havens for fugitive slaves than New York. (Let’s face it. The real estate industrial complex doesn’t own these other towns.) The good news is that, since the discovery of the African Burial Ground, attention is finally being paid.

The Academic Sleuth

In the spring of 2007, Fern Luskin, a professor of art history at LaGuardia Community College, was doing some laptop work on the roof of her building in Chelsea when she was shocked to see steel girders rising atop a four-story row house a few doors down. Suspecting that construction of a penthouse was under way, she began doing research at the New York Historical Society. In the process, she discovered that the building dated back to 1847, when her block was called Lamartine Place. “Then I found an 1872 street map that listed both addresses for the building—19 Lamartine Place and 339 West 29th Street—and that was my Rosetta Stone.”

It took Fern two months to make this discovery, but the digging had only begun. Searching for information about the occupants, she learned that the building had once been owned by James and Abigail Hopper Gibbons, prominent Quaker abolitionists, and that Abby was a daughter of Isaac T. Hopper, one of the founders of the Underground Railroad. This exciting evidence opened up a new route to save the building—the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission—but it also meant more digging, this time for evidence that the building itself had historical significance.

It’s all but impossible to document an eye witness account of an intact site of a station on the Underground Railroad, as its very survival depended upon secrecy but, after many months and many a dead end, Fern made that rare discovery in a letter written in 1855 by Joseph H. Choate, an abolitionist lawyer who witnessed the Gibbons family’s heroic generosity toward fugitive slaves: “The house of Mrs. Gibbons… was one of the stations of the underground railroad by which fugitive slaves found their way from the South to Canada. I have dined with that family in company with William Lloyd Garrison, and sitting at the table with us was a jet-black negro who was on his way to freedom.”

Bearing Witness

Julie Finch, actress, dancer and pastry chef, became involved in the effort to landmark the Hopper-Gibbons house after hearing about it at the Quaker meeting house on Rutherford Place, where she is a member. “I met Fern at one of the Landmarks Committee meetings at Community Board Four and I started nagging her right away: Who else is involved in this? When are we going to have a meeting?” A veteran of the battle to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the 1960s, one of the greatest neighborhood preservationist victories of all time, Julie knew what needed to be done. “I called up every preservation group, every politician and got to know their staff. Fern set up a block organization. Then this wonderful woman at the state historical preservation office told us the block was impacted by the draft riots of 1863.” According to many historians, this explosion of racial violence was ignited by the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation that year, and Lamartine Place was a well-known abolitionist enclave. “We discovered that during the riots the mob ransacked and set fire to the Gibbons house, and their daughters ran up to the roof and escaped to safety over their neighbors’ rooftops. I was horrified to find out that there were as many as thirty lynchings during the riots, one of them on the corner of 7th Avenue and 27th Street. That’s never been acknowledged until this year.”

While the two activists continued with the grueling research necessary for a Landmarks designation, their excitement was shared by a number of politicians, historians and preservationist groups who were working hard to help them. Out-of-state organizations like the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center also got involved. “It was an accretion thing,” Fern says. “Our e-mail list kept getting bigger and bigger.”

Victory came on October 20, 2009, with the Landmarks Commission designation of the Lamartine Historic District. The official marker was unveiled on the eve before Martin Luther King Day, 2012, but the battle with the owner of 339 continues. Rejecting Landmarks’ authority over the building, he recently filed applications with the Board of Standards and Appeals to retain the illegal addition that would obliterate its historic rooftop and the scaffolding and boarded-up façade is still a hideous eyesore. Looking at the carnage, it’s easy to lose sight of the accomplishment that has already been made: its designation as “the best evidence in Manhattan of a still extant site serving as a station on the Underground Railroad.”

What does it mean to be on the cutting edge of history? Unlike old houses, which developers tear down at their whim, old documents don’t get destroyed so easily. In fact, they’re handled with gloves—literally. As this pair of historical sleuths puts it: “The documents are there. You just have to go find them.”

This is the first article about the recently discovered history of African Americans in the Village and adjoining neighborhoods. Next: “The Education of Frederick Douglass.” Isaac Hopper, black abolitionist David Ruggles, and other forerunners of nonviolent civil disobedience a hundred years before the Civil Rights Movement.

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