‘Shock, repulsion’ as group targets NYC's slave roots

A New York-based group of artists, educators and activists are forcing their fellow New Yorkers to face a hard, historical truth – slave-owners were not just confined to the South.

Promoting a campaign called 'Slavers of New York', group members are slapping stickers on streets signs, schools and other sites they say were named after prominent New Yorkers who owned slaves – like Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, which takes its name from a Dutch settler whose family owned approximately 43 slaves from 1790 to 1820.

Campaign co-founder Elsa Eli Waithe:

"A lot of these streets run through Black and Brown neighborhoods and that the people walking these neighborhoods are still saying a slave owner's name. And it's unbeknownst to them. And once I typically give people the information about the street that they did not know, there's an immediate reaction, typically of surprise, shock, repulsion. And so I think if more people knew what their street was named for, or who it was named for, we can then foster another conversation about what it looks like to name and claim your neighborhood."

Those behind the ‘Slavers of New York’ campaign say there are at least 500 New York sites that feature the names of former slave-owners, many dating back to the 17th century when New York was New Amsterdam - including colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant, whose name graces a prestigious public high school, among other properties, and the Cortelyou family.

Maria Robles is a fellow campaign co-founder: “Cortelyou Road is about two and a half miles long and is a street that runs through the neighborhoods of Flatbush and Kensington in southern Brooklyn and also has a stop along the Q Train. It was named for the Cortelyou family. As our sticker states, the Cortelyou family were slave owners, enslaving approximately fifty five people collectively between the years of eighteen hundred and eighteen ten, according to census records."

At a debate last month ahead of primary elections for New York City mayor, the leading Democratic candidates agreed the city should consider renaming sites named after slaveholders. The mayor's office did not return a request for comment.

Campaign members say the stickers, made by Black-owned and Brooklyn-based sticker shop Comik Ink, often have to be replaced due to vandalism.

But the group has put up more than a thousand so far and are planning to post them around all five of New York City’s boroughs.

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