A Secret Society Tied to the Underground Railroad Fights to Save Its Home
On a brisk morning in November, bright yellow leaves from a huge ginkgo tree scattered onto the front yard of 87 MacDonough Street. Under peeling paint and missing cornices, Essie Gregory stood on the steps of the huge, ramshackle mansion in the heart of the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with a small group of visitors.
As a passer-by craned his neck to see what was going on, Ms. Gregory, 74, opened the front door, giving her guests a rare glimpse inside the New York headquarters of the United Order of Tents Eastern District No. 3.
And despite the water damage, boarded up windows and crumbling plaster, it was just possible to imagine the mysterious building as it once was. For generations, the Tents — members of a secret society of Black women whose 19th-century founders had once been enslaved — held meetings upstairs, cooked meals in the kitchen and performed secret ceremonies in the parlor.
The Tents have not disappeared. In fact, their membership is growing, and they have ambitious plans for the future. But first, they have an urgent item on their agenda: saving the headquarters. The Tents have been fighting various real estate and tax battles for almost 10 years, and risk a tax lien — which could result in losing the property. In addition, the building is in dire need of expensive repairs and restoration. Still, the once grand old mansion remains the heart of the organization.
Twenty-five years ago, Essie Gregory witnessed the Tents performing a secret ritual. She was curious and asked to join the group.Credit…Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times
“That building is a symbol of a legacy,” said Akosua Levine, 71, a member of the Tents who has lived in Brooklyn since the 1970s. “Women that were enslaved, freed slaves — they did with nothing. So in the 21st century, we have no excuse for that building, for that legacy, not to continue. We have to value our culture.”
The United Order of Tents, which dates back to 1848, has ties to the Underground Railroad and a mission to care for the aged, respectfully bury the dead and promote sisterhood. While there are flourishing Tents chapters across the South, the Brooklyn group is the last remaining club in what was once the Eastern District, stretching from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania.
Ms. Gregory, a military veteran originally from South Carolina, has been a member since 1997. That year, she witnessed the Tents perform a secret ritual, which she declined to describe. But, she said with a smirk, “I was curious.” She asked to join and soon found she was one of the youngest women in the group.
The women were wary, she said: “They were doing all the good things that the Tents did, but they were not really inviting new members in. They didn’t put themselves out there.”
In fact, only one person has joined the Tents in the 20 years following Ms. Gregory’s initiation.
But over the past few years, Ms. Gregory has been working on raising the profile of the Tents in the community — and taking in new members. Membership had declined to just eight women. Now the number stands at 24 — and there are Tents as young as 25.
A new generation is intrigued by the secrecy, interested in the community work and fascinated by the origin story of the Tents, Ms. Gregory said. “The new membership we have received, they all got interested in the Tents from the history. They want that legacy of the founders to go forth.”
One of the newest members is Erica Buddington, 35, an educator and public historian born and raised in Brooklyn. “Once you’re in, it’s really about just the service work,” she said. “They get straight to it.”
Immediately, membership was emotionally overwhelming, Ms. Buddington said. “That first day, being in conversation with those elders, I just was like, I don’t want to leave,” she said. “I’ve never been in a room with this much knowledge at once. And I’ve been in rooms with Ph.D.s and scientists.”
The United Order of Tents was founded by Annetta M. Lane and Harriett Taylor. As Suzanne Spellen, a writer and architectural historian who conducts Brooklyn neighborhood walking tours, wrote for Brownstoner, “They began the lodge as a station on the Underground Railroad, shepherding escaping slaves to the North and to freedom in Canada. Often the escapees would huddle in tents, hiding in woods and remote places, giving birth to the organization’s name.”
Kaitlyn Greenidge, a novelist who attended a Southern District Tents convention in 2017 and wrote about her experiences and the history of the group, was impressed that for decades the Tents supplied loans and mortgages to Black families when banks refused to. The organization offered security, both financial and physical: “They were able to operate and run an elderly home for older Black people within the community for something like 150 years with no outside financial help or no outside grants,” she said.
The Order also helped provide proper burials for those who had died in poverty. “The Tents were one of the organizations that gathered money to help people have funerals and be buried with a headstone,” Ms. Spellen said.
In Brooklyn, the group has become inseparable from the striking mansion, which today inspires reverence despite heartache over its current state of disrepair. Gold plaques and fading photographs of women in robes adorn the walls of the parlor. An ornate wooden mirror, 10 feet high or more, stands at the front of the room. Wooden stairs with carved detailing on the balustrade lead up three stories high.
The Tents keep memorabilia, including photographs and documents, inside 87 MacDonough Street. They would like to have a small museum one day.Credit…Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for The New York Times
Built in 1863 for a brewer named William Parker, the house originally sat on a large lot with a carriage house. The second owner of the mansion was James McMahon, the president of Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank. The Tents purchased it in 1945.
“It’s a building that really reflects the urban development of Brooklyn,” said Blaire Walsh, the director of preservation services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which has committed to assisting the Tents. “This was a very suburban place until the Brooklyn Bridge opened.”
When the Tents purchased the building some 80 years after it was constructed, Bed-Stuy was a major cultural center for Black New Yorkers, many of whom had moved North from the South, in addition to those who left the crowded buildings of Harlem for more spacious brownstones in Brooklyn.
The Tents held springtime events in the yard, grew vegetables in the garden, and tended to sick, old and poor women. There were Thanksgiving dinners for the community and toy drives for Christmas. But as the years passed, the group’s members aged and passed on. Funds dwindled. The house became harder and harder to maintain.
In 2011, the Tents sold the back part of their large lot to a developer and used the money for some repairs. But that only created more problems.
A contractor hired to work on the building ended up removing some original molding and paneling, and crucial projects were left unfinished. “I cried,” Ms. Levine recalled. “Because it’s like my heart. You’re hurting my heart.”
There were other financial challenges, as reported by Curbed. Because the building was often unoccupied during the pandemic, when the Tents filed for exemption from local property taxes, the Department of Finance turned them down, said Jacques David, a senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. He added that the city agency believed that the building was vacant, and that the Tents hadn’t proved that they would use the property for tax-exempt purposes in the foreseeable future.
Mr. David has been representing the Tents since 2014. “We’ve been through quite a bit together,” he said. “At each step, when I think that we’ve cleared the final hurdle, there’s another hurdle.”
The group’s current property tax bill tops $400,000.
Restoration of the mansion would mean preserving many aspects of Brooklyn’s history, said Ms. Walsh. “This history of public health, the Great Migration, the flourishing of Bedford-Stuyvesant, an African-American community — all of these additional layers, and it’s a group that has direct links to enslavement and Reconstruction. It’s just this legacy that’s so incredible. And the building tells all of these different, multifaceted stories.”
The building is protected as part of the Stuyvesant Heights Historic District, so it likely will not be demolished, regardless of the tax dispute. But for the Tents to continue to use it, the expenses will be considerable. “I’m thinking we’re definitely looking in the hundreds of thousands,”Ms. Walsh said.
Kelly Britt, an assistant professor of anthropology at Brooklyn College who focuses on historical archaeology, said that the mansion should be preserved not because of its architectural value, but because of what the walls have seen: the Tents in action.
That said, “They need money,” Ms. Britt acknowledged. “They need money to deal with the house. They need money to deal with the issues with the city and the taxes. And they need money to be able to do what they want to do to help the community.”
Ms. Buddington noted that many enclaves of Black history in New York City “have been wiped from the map.” Brooklyn has many street signs and neighborhoods that “are holding up the names of Dutch and English enslavers,” she said. “Yet we cannot keep Black spaces intact. That is big for me. We need to remember some of those spaces.”
The Tents have laid out a plan — which they will share with the Department of Finance — detailing what the future with a fully repaired and restored house serving the community could look like: a small museum with archival materials. A community garden on the grounds. They envision a big kitchen for conversations with food historians, cooking demonstrations and tastings. A dedicated art gallery. Health screenings and flu shots.
But first they have to save the house.
“That building is a beacon of light,” Ms. Levine said. “It’s a beacon of where we came from, and where we can be. We have a foundation. If we get weak: Look at that building. If we feel like we can’t go on anymore: Look at that building.”
Despite being a new member, Ms. Buddington said that she feels the pull of 87 MacDonough on a deep level. “There is a heavy imprint here of folks that migrated from the South, from the Caribbean, from Africa and established roots here for us,” she said. “And I really feel like when I walk into those spaces, they’re saying, stay. Stay.”