Stuyvesant Responds to Slavers of NY Campaign
Issue 16, Volume 111
“The goal of Slavers of NY is to expose and educate New Yorkers of the legacy of racism and slavery of New York City. We want to offer a history that does not neglect the cruelty and atrocity of the founding of the United States of America,” co-founder of Slavers of NY Ada Reso said in an e-mail interview.
The Slavers of New York is a sticker campaign and education initiative that uses stickers to shed light on the history of street names, subway stations, neighborhoods, and other locations in New York City that are named after enslavers to expose the history of slavery in NYC.
One of the figures highlighted in their initiative is Peter Stuyvesant, who led the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s. Many places around the city bear his name, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Stuyvesant Town, and Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant High School’s original building was initially located roughly south of the land that Peter Stuyvesant owned, called the Bouwerie, hence why it is named after him.
The campaign was started by Reso and Elsa Eli Waithe, who were both inspired by The New York Times’s 1619 Project, a long-form journalism project developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to highlight the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in American history.
They created stickers imitating the style of a NYC street sign with the names of past enslavers as current street names. Underneath this text, additional information about the featured people’s roles in this matter is provided, including the number of people they enslaved. These stickers are placed on light poles and street signs, where pedestrians can see and learn about the history behind these names.
So far, stickers have been placed predominantly in Brooklyn, but the organization plans to expand throughout all five boroughs. To increase awareness, Slavers of New York has a Twitter and Instagram account dedicated to spreading more historical information and data to educate people about the history of slavery in New York. “We also hope to build an interactive map, website, and maybe an app that allows almost anyone to experience the city as a living history museum,” Reso said.
Through these efforts, the campaign hopes that people can learn about the past and grow through education. “We hope to inspire other movements to decolonize space and place. We hope that the people of each street, neighborhood, borough, and city in the state of New York remember how this country was built. The history of slavery in the United States is world history,” Reso said. “The wall for which Wall Street was named, the financial capital of the world, was built by people enslaved by Europeans and North Americans. The past violence and current inequality in this country are the same thread. We hope for collective justice and a reconciliation process.”
A point of contention is whether Stuyvesant High School’s name should be changed, based on Peter Stuyvesant’s status as an enslaver. Social studies teacher Mordecai Moore believes that changing the name of the school is not necessary. “Names can involve multiple meanings and connotations. Over the last 120 years since 1901, [Stuyvesant has] developed a very different meaning, so therefore, I don’t think that the school should drop the name Stuyvesant or change it to another historical figure’s name,” Moore said.
In Moore’s AP United States History class, students are assigned a project called a Statues and Monuments Scrapbook, a project in which they research public monuments and their histories. This work has encouraged many students to become more aware of issues surrounding the actions of prominent people in history.
For junior Jingyu Zhang, her research on Peter Stuyvesant focused mainly on his intolerance of other religions and antisemitism. However, knowing that he was an enslaver added to her perspective of him. “Learning the fact that he was an enslaver definitely made me see him in an even more negative light,” Zhang said in an e-mail interview.
A recent New York Times article about Slavers of New York included a section that mentions that the New York City Department of Education plans to update its website to include more information on Peter Stuyvesant in response to the campaign. This information has yet to be released. The Stuyvesant administration also has yet to respond to the campaign.
Zhang is still hopeful that the administration will address Stuyvesant’s history. “I do think it would be great if Stuyvesant [...] could clarify what legacy the school is trying to preserve through the name ‘Stuyvesant’ and recognize the history of the figure it is named after,” Zhang said.
Other teachers such as social studies teacher Robert Sandler make an effort to highlight Peter Stuyvesant in their classes. “I teach about [Peter] Stuyvesant’s bigotry [and] the centrality of slavery in colonial New York in my elective NYC History course. I lead my class on a walking tour of downtown Manhattan that explores historic landmarks from early New York,” Sandler said in an e-mail interview.
Similarly, English teacher Lauren Stuzin has discussed Peter Stuyvesant and his history with their classes. “I first found out that [Peter Stuyvesant] was disabled and began to think about the potential ableism of the Stuyvesant mascot (the Peglegs) and asked my students what they thought,” Stuzin said in an e-mail interview. “They informed me that he was also a harmful person and a slaver, which then pushed me to do further research. I found the account mentioned in the article through that research and then shared the information with my classes.”
Sandler also acknowledges that the time period in which Peter Stuyvesant lived is important in understanding his actions. “[Peter] Stuyvesant must be placed in [the] historical context of 17th century Atlantic Slave trade in the Caribbean and South America, as well as the tobacco slave economies of Virginia and Maryland. With all his faults, he shaped early New York,” Sandler said.
Moore suggested creating a section inside the school dedicated to the history of Stuyvesant High School, which could include information not just about Peter Stuyvesant but also the changes that the school has undergone since its creation. “It’s not just about Peter Stuyvesant, but also about the fact that this school was not a specialized high school when it first started, but it was a trade school for boys in 1901,” Moore said.
Stuzin encourages their students to speak up about such issues. “I believe firmly in the power of the students. Students in my class know I urge them to organize, use their voices, and harness their collective power to fight to make change,” they said. “Schools exist to serve students. Sometimes, we lose sight of that. My students know I stand behind them in their fight for power in their education,” they said.
Ultimately, Slavers of NY hopes to inspire others and encourages everyone, including students, to participate in this movement. “We encourage you all to continue to dream of and act [toward] the future you want to see,” Reso said. “We suggest a student-led committee or movement to confront the school’s name and history. You have the power to change the world.”