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Historic Black Women's Society Fights for Tax Exemption to Maintain its Bed-Stuy Headquarters

The Legal Aid Society is backing The United Order of Tents — which was once a safe haven for people escaping slavery — in its fight for a real property tax exemption.
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The headquarters of the Brooklyn chapter of the United Order of Tents currently resides in a historic Victorian mansion at 87 MacDonough St. in Bed-Stuy. Photo: Google Maps.

The Brooklyn chapter of the United Order of Tents is getting backed by the Legal Aid Society as it fights for a tax exemption to maintain its Brooklyn headquarters.

The United Order of Tents is the oldest Black Women’s Benevolent Society in the United States. The Brooklyn chapter headquarters resides in a historic Victorian mansion at 87 MacDonough St. in Bed-Stuy.

“If the United Order of Tents were to lose their Brooklyn headquarters, it would be an even greater loss to the community since the Tents would be unable to continue their work of providing mutual aid to the residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” Jacques David said.

David is a senior staff attorney in the Community Development Project at The Legal Aid Society.

“It would also be detrimental to the work of preserving African American cultural heritage in New York City,” David said.

The organization is a recognized non-profit and tax-exempt by the US Internal Revenue Service.

According to the Legal Aid Society, the New York City Department of Finance has denied the Tents’ application for exemption from real property tax. The application was denied as the DOF believes the building on MacDonough St. is vacant.

However, the Legal Aid Society said the Tents are legally occupying the building and are calling on the DOF to grant approval of the application for the exemption.

“It is imperative that the DOF grants our client’s application for exemption from real property tax,” David said.

Pandemic-Induced Disrepair

The Tents report the building has fallen into disrepair as a result of mandatory social distancing orders during the pandemic.

In 2021, BK Reader reported the building’s appearance could be mistaken as abandoned with its boarded-up windows and flaking paint. At that time, the Tents added it was also struggling with declining membership.

According to the Legal Aid Society, the Tents intend to seek grant funding for further preservation of the building. However, the current tax payment would hamper its ability to do so.

“We are not new to challenging circumstances or hardship,” Essie Gregory, president of the United Order of Tents, Brooklyn said.

“Our organization was founded in the crucible of slavery and thrived during the Jim Crow era. We are working tirelessly so that our organization remains a ‘tent of refuge’ for decades to come. That is why the DOF must approve our application for real property tax exemption.”

The United Order of the Tents was formed in 1848 and officially chartered in 1883. The organization aided those escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad and later became a central hub for community support.

“The United Order of Tents has been a beacon of light in Bedford-Stuyvesant for more than 75 years. That light has flickered at times, but it has never been extinguished. There are many challenges ahead as my sisters and I work to revitalize our organization so that it can meet the present-day needs of our community,” Gregory said.