Stuyvesant the School, Not the Person

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Issue 10, Volume 113

By Amanda Cisse 

A New York Times Op-Ed, “What Kind of Power Should the Names of New York Have?” by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, argues that when confronting the history behind the names of public spaces, we should consider not only the origin of the names but also the new social and cultural meaning that residents have assigned to them. Stuyvesant High School is a culturally complex public space with an equally complex name. To better cultivate our national reputation for academic excellence and opportunity, we need to detach ourselves from the antisemitic enslaver Peter Stuyvesant.

Seventy two percent of students at Stuyvesant are Asian, 18 percent are White, 4 percent are Hispanic, 3 percent are mixed, 1 percent are Native American, 1 percent are Black, and 1 percent are Hawaiian. These demographics prove that we are a school for students from all over, including many immigrants and first-generation students. Compared to many reputable New York private schools that are attended by a majority of white, high-income students, Stuyvesant shows the world that kids do not have to fit this profile to excel academically. The name “Stuyvesant” has grown to command respect around the country and even internationally as one of America’s top schools. Some parents begin preparing their children to take the SHSAT in early middle school or even elementary school because gaining acceptance to a specialized high school opens the door to a world of possibility. Stuyvesant provides us with the means to be successful in whatever we choose to do. With over 200 clubs, 43 athletic teams, 31 Advanced Placement classes, and every elective imaginable, there is nothing a student can’t achieve. Personally, I have been able to explore everything from the math team to the school newspaper, and have found support in guidance counselors, opportunities coordinators, and teachers who are always willing to help me progress inside and outside of school. Going to Stuyvesant, as opposed to a different non-specialized school, can change the course of a student’s life.

Our namesake, however, represents something entirely different. Peter Stuyvesant was a Dutch director-general for the colony of New Netherland who expanded the settlement of New York City (then New Amsterdam) into downtown Manhattan. While Stuyvesant successfully administered the construction of Wall Street, Broad Street, and Broadway, he was also a raging racist. He was Manhattan’s largest slave owner and trader, and he used them for leverage in battle. He also forced Jewish refugees out of New Amsterdam, calling them “repugnant,” and was equally hateful towards Quakers, Catholics, and Lutherans. If he saw this school today, Peter Stuyvesant would be appalled by the diverse mix of religions and races at this school. If he heard about the Discovery program, which aims to make the school more accessible to marginalized students, or initiatives like the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion team, he would be horrified. However, these initiatives now represent what the name Stuyvesant has come to mean. They aim to expand access to the plethora of opportunities at Stuyvesant for high-performing, disadvantaged students around the city. Clearly, we need to re-evaluate the way we handle the name “Stuyvesant.”

During the Mayoral Primaries, Mayor Eric Adams proposed renaming all schools named after enslavers. Considering Peter Stuyvesant’s legacy, this type of reaction to the name “Stuyvesant” is certainly understandable. However, this approach ignores the new meaning the New York City community has assigned to the school. The best way to show that our school does not condone Peter Stuyvesant’s actions as a person while still upholding the new reputation associated with the name is by removing our attachment to Stuyvesant as a person. To begin, consider how our Black and Jewish students may feel when they walk by his giant portrait each time they enter the school building. Stuyvesant has many interesting and accomplished alumni who deserve to be recognized at the entrance far more than Peter Stuyvesant does. A rotating set of portraits with notable alumni from different fields can replace Peter Stuyvesant’s portrait; jazz musician Thelonious Monk, actress Lucy Liu, actor James Cagney, former attorney general Eric Holder, or even recent young graduates are all options. There is also no reason that our sports teams should have the mascot “Peg-Leg Pete.” Not only does this name honor a slave trader and antisemite, but it is not intimidating to other athletic teams in the slightest—tigers, sharks, or lions would be more fitting.

As a school, removing our association with the person “Stuyvesant” allows us to focus on the positive background behind the name. Our mascots, hallways, and student culture should honor the brilliant students and alumni who attend our school and have made their mark on the world in many different ways. These are the people who make Stuyvesant the excellent school that it is.