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Secret benevolent society with ties to the Underground Railroad fights to save its historic Bedford Stuyvesant mansion

Secret benevolent society fights to save historic Brooklyn mansion
Secret benevolent society fights to save historic Brooklyn mansion 03:25

NEW YORK -  A magnificent mansion stands at 87 Macdonough St. in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Upon closer inspection, the paint is peeling, the windows are boarded up, and the delicate carved details have seen better days. Still, it's unlike anything else in the area.

"This building is architecturally significant," says Blaire Walsh of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. "It also is important in terms of Brooklyn history. You can really learn a lot about how this neighborhood developed because it really predates a lot of the other construction in the neighborhood."

Standing since 1863, the villa's peeling paint and boarded up windows pique the curiosity. A sign hangs outside the front entrance: Eastern District Grand Tent, Grand United Order of Tents of Bklyn.

This building belongs to the secret benevolent society created in 1867 by formerly enslaved African American women. 

"It was started out of the need to help the slaves escape the South and come to a free state," explains Essie Gregory, President of the Eastern District of the organization. Gregory says the mission of the organization was to care for the sick, feed the hungry, help orphans, provide dignified burials for the dead, along with other work in the community. 

The Tents bought this mansion in 1945, and for 78 years have been working from the neighborhood to help generations of people. 

"They would house Black single mothers to be caretakers for themselves and each other and that was sort of a program that was instrumental and foundational part of the house being here," says Charlene Olivia Jean, who joined the order about a year ago. 

Erica Buddington, another recent member and historian, says she learned of the group after doing research on the house.

"Sometimes, people hear secret society and don't realize that the secret was for survival, but there was nothing secret about the work they were doing," she said.

As time went on, the organization's membership declined, and the women of the tents ran into financial hardships. Their lawyer, Jacques David of the Legal Aid Society, helped them file for nonprofit status with the IRS, to help them financially recover. Right now, he says they face more than $400,000 in property taxes, and are in the middle of an active dispute with the Department of Finance to get a property tax exemption for their charitable work. 

"Those taxes, that burden prevents the tents of doing the important work of preserving their building and also building out their capacity," David tells CBS2's Hannah Kliger. "This building represents intergenerational Black wealth."

A spokesperson for the Department of Finance responded with a statement: "DOF has been working closely with attorneys representing the Order of the Tents in this matter and we look forward to reviewing their application again once we receive all necessary documents to demonstrate that the organization is taking concrete steps toward making this building usable for nonprofit tax exempt purposes."

Tent members estimate it will likely cost millions to restore the mansion to its former glory. Already the community pitched into help raise more than $200,000 in an online fundraiser to offset some of the costs, which makes leaders like Akosua Levine, Deputy of the Eastern District of the United Order of Tents, optimistic.

"I love this place, I love the women that are still walking through these halls and helping us continue their journey that they started," Levine says.

The mansion is located in a landmarked historic district, so it likely won't get demolished. Still, the fight to get the building back to working order will be a massive uphill battle. Members say losing it isn't an option.

"It was bought during an era by women when women just not just did not purchase a building like this. And we will definitely not want to see this building depart from the Tents. You know, our ancestors have done too much work in this building and too much blood and sweat went into purchasing it," Gregory says fondly. 

The history of adversity and survival etched into these walls, guides her and her sisters, inspired by the women who toiled here for decades.

Have a story idea or tip in Brooklyn? Email Hannah by CLICKING HERE.

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