New York Streets Named for Slave Traders


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slavery in new york city historyIn the 17th and 18th century, as New Amsterdam grew from a trading post into a village, a village into a town, and then a town into the port city of New York, its wealthiest residents were financially invested in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. And because they were among the most prominent of its early citizens, many of the city’s oldest streets are named after slaveholders and slave traders. An online database, New York Slavery Records Index, created by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, opens this forgotten history to public view.

During the past year a mayoral commission held public hearings and recommended that a statue of James Marion Sims, a 19th century American physician who experimented on enslaved African women, be removed from the Central Park wall at 103rd street and 5th Avenue in the City of New York. Unfortunately, the commission ignored much of the city’s deep connection to slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Among the most prominent slave traders listed in the data are father and son Nicholas (1644-1707) and Samuel (1669-1746) Bayard. The elder Bayard was the mayor of New York City under the English from 1685 to 1686 and a nephew of Dutch colonial superintendent Peter Stuyvesant, the largest private slaveholder in the Dutch colony.

Samuel was a member of the colonial assembly and related through marriage to the prominent slaveholding Van Cortlandt, Van Rensselaer, and Schuyler families. Nicholas and then Samuel owned and operated sugar mills processing slave-produced commodities in the city. The Bayard’s owned stakes in at least eight slave-trading ships. There are Bayard Streets in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Staten Island, and in the Westchester County towns of New Rochelle and Larchmont.

Mary Bayard, the daughter of Nicholas Bayard III, married William Houstoun in 1786. Houstoun had been a member of the Continental Congress from Georgia, where he and his family members were slaveholders, and was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Mary’s father gave the couple land from the Bayard estate. A path through the estate eventually became Houston Street.

Peter Stuyvesant is honored with an elite high school in Manhattan, neighborhoods and housing developments in Brooklyn and Manhattan, a Stuyvesant Street in Manhattan, a Stuyvesant Avenue in Brooklyn, and a Stuyvesant Square with a Stuyvesant statue in Manhattan.

In lower Manhattan there is a Beekman Street, a Clarkson Street, and a DeLancey Street. Beekman Street, near New York City Hall, is named after Gerardus Beekman, a wealthy physician, landowner, slave trader, and a colonial governor of the Province of New York. Beekman owned an estate in Flatbush, Brooklyn and farms in New Jersey.

There is also a Beekman Street in Staten Island and Beekman Avenues in the Bronx, Sleepy Hollow, and Mount Vernon. Clarkson Street in Greenwich Village and the town of Clarkson in Western New York State were named after Matthew Clarkson, a Revolutionary War general who partnered in the slave trade with his father, David Clarkson. There is also a Clarkson Street in Brooklyn.

DeLancy Street is named after the Delancy family, whose patriarch, Stephen Delancy, originally known by his French name Etienne de Lancy, owned shares in at least four slave-trading vessels. Through marriage, the Delancys were related to the Van Cortlandts and the Schuylers.

In lower Manhattan there are also DePeyster, Duane, Moore, Mott, Pike, Reade, Rutgers, and Vandam streets, and a Cuylers Alley, all named after investors in the slave-trade. Rip Vandam (also spelled Van Dam) was the 23rd colonial governor of the British Province of New York from 1731-1732. There are Vandam Streets in Brooklyn and Queens as well.

Schermerhorn is a small town in northern Holland and the Schermerhorn family is one of the more prominent Anglo-Dutch families in New York history and they have a major street named after them in Brooklyn. Arnout and John Schermerhorn are both on the list as investors in the slave trade.

19 thoughts on “New York Streets Named for Slave Traders

  1. James Richmond

    Mr. Singer’s article is very educational in sharing a snapshot of the early history of New York. Both city and state had a strong connection to slavery and the story should be told. I just hope that some do not use this info to push for renaming streets, removing monuments, etc. Much better to learn from history than to pretend it never happened.

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  2. Dan Weaver

    I have written a bit about slavery in the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York, a subject much more neglected than slavery in NYC. However, I agree with James Richmond’s comment, particularly where monuments and statues are concerned. Adding additional monuments or historical markers to monuments and sculptures of slave traders and owners that would explain their role in slavery makes more sense than removing them. Removing sculptures, statues and monuments means that the history of slavery in New York will become even more invisible than it is now.

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  3. John WarrenJohn Warren

    After we tore down the statue of King George III, did we forget the American Revolution happened? When we tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein, did the history of the First Iraq War go away?

    I think it’s rather silly, especially given the dearth of popular knowledge about slavery today, to claim that we must have monuments to really awful people (seen as such by many even in their own time) in order to remember how awful they were.

    If these arguments are valid, than we should erect statues to Hitler – how on Earth will we remember his crimes if we don’t? /s

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    1. Dan Weaver

      It is not valid to compare the knowledge people have of Hitler or even King George to the knowledge they have of slavery in New York State. If people were aware of slavery in NYS in the same way they were aware of King George or Hitler, those statues would have been torn down long ago. When I have written about slavery in the Mohawk Valley, many people have told me they were unaware there was slavery in NYS. Many New Yorkers, including historians, make a big deal about the involvement of New Yorkers in the abolitionist and underground railroad movement, but ignore slavery in NYS.

      There might be a time when it would be wise to take down statues and monuments to slave traders and slave owners in NYS. For now, it would be best to put historical markers next to them to explain who they were and what they did. There are few books on slavery in NY. I know because I have done an exhaustive search for them. I wonder how many people have read the few books that are available. For now, using these monuments and statues by adding additional statuary and/or historical explanation via markers would more effectively teach people about slavery in NYS than any book, article, blog or anything else.

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      1. John WarrenJohn Warren

        I do not share your sense of the importance of statues. I would guess most people don’t know where the nearest one is, or who it is, let alone what it’s about.

        I do however understand how offensive our defense of some of these statues is to the people they target (or targeted). It seems to me this is a discussion about what history we want commemorated in our public square, not about the efficacy of statues as educational tools.

        The history community is wildly unrepresentative of our history as it is, so defending public statues abhorrent to large segments of our population seems like a pretty poor choice to me.

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        1. Dan Weaver

          You do think statues are important. If you didn’t, you would not want them taken down. Nor would you have bothered replying to my comment. They are obviously important in your mind.

          They are offensive. I just think that for now, a better solution to taking them down is to use them as educational tools. My guess is they are as easy to find as this blog post or our comments on it.

          This is not a discussion about what history we want to commemorate, but what we want to teach about history. I don’t want to commemorate slavery in NYS. I do, however, want people to learn about it.

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  4. Olivia TwineOlivia Twine

    Removing statues is an easy palliative but can’t erase the past. Better to keep the statues and attach essays describing their real historical significance. Or better yet, move them to a museum like they do down South, accompanied by ample interpretative literature and engaged docents.
    It’s too bad we can’t change the past. I would prohibit beaver trapping.

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  5. Justin

    I actually remember going to a PD at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Slavery in New York. This topic was discussed there and they left it as a possible question for students on whether these monuments should be torn down or whether these streets should be re-named (unfortunately it was left to the very end and there was insufficient time to explore the issue). Personally, I’m mixed on the issue, I see the point in tearing them down, but, as it is, many see slavery in the US as mostly a Southern institution. As an educator it would be more valuable to add an explanation by a statue so people can become more informed.

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  6. IRA SHOR

    Wondering if many folks passing by a statue would read any extended text unpacking complicity to slavery. Many of us do but we are educators trained to study and paid to do so and morally oriented to pay attention. Best, imho, to remove such statuary to museums and to rename such streets and places, replacing them with names and statues of moral predecessors who rejected white supremacy and the great wealth generated by unpaid slave labor in the founding of this nation.

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  7. Michael M. DeBonis

    Mr. Singer’s article raises many valid questions here…should we create and bequeath statues to people whose historical behaviors do not reflect modern American values? Typically we shouldn’t. Our historical dedicatory statues and sculptures should be ones of morally fit historical personages. When we follow this protocol…the statues of historically relevant people do matter…but this is not an easy topic to tackle.
    Remember that when many of these people lived (e. g. Peter Stuyvesant) there was no United States of America. These personages were inhabiting colonial territories of foreign nations. These countries (France, England, Spain and Holland, etc.) did not share our current value system. Slavery (in the western sense of the word) was a long-accepted institution practiced during antiquity by Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians. It was also widely practiced before these groups in ancient Egypt, China, India and Mesopotamia. The three major native American cultures at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the New World also practiced and encouraged slavery…has any ever heard of the Classical Maya, Incas and Aztecs?
    Judging history is always a two-way street. Historically speaking, no one specific nation, culture or people’s hands are ever entirely clean. European nations held slavery in the same regard as their contemporaries…as a necessary means for economic prosperity. This does not mean they were right in doing so…but it does reflect a prevailing historical reality that slavery was an institution that European nations inherited from their mediaeval ancestors…who, in-turn, inherited slavery from the Roman Empire.
    At the time of the European Conquest of the Americas, slavery was practiced on a grand scale in such far-flung places as Japan and in the Ottoman Empire…the Europeans were not the only slave-holders on Planet Earth at this time…such a reading of history is entirely inaccurate and absurd. Modernity and the progress of Western philosophy helped to gradually end slavery in the world (globally) and the USA (individually). The American and French Revolutions also helped to end slavery (albeit, slowly) in their own ways. But the inevitability of the American Civil War and the US abolition movement in the 19th century was what finally and (catastrophically) brought slavery to an semi-end. It took another 100 years for the institution of slavery to end (via the 20th century’s Civil Rights Movement) in America.
    History teaches us that most historical issues are complex ones. When we start tearing down statues in on place, we may have to tear them down in another. We should not be giving statues to historical villains. But we should carefully examine and weigh all of the historical facts before passing final judgement. No single person of note in history has ever been a saint…neither were the founders of the USA. Many (such as Washington and Jefferson) were in fact slaveowners and flawed people…yet they were great men. The march of history’s progress has always been slow, painful and messy. For great things to happen, it takes time, patience and persistence. In most of these instances the removal of these statues is justified…but remember…what was a hero to one group of people…may not be a hero to some other group, and vice-versa.
    When we expect to judge the people of yesteryear by our own modern-day standards, we must proceed with caution. And when giving statues to these famous (and oftentimes) infamous persons the same caution must also apply. The main principle here is that we must never use the institution of slavery ever again in our society. And their is more than one form of slavery, (literal, political and socio-economic, to just name some).
    For people who think that statuary is not important…well, maybe sculpture and art are not your things. And to put these people in their proper historical perspectives is also important. But we should never make too much of anyone’s statue. Just because one person has a statue and some one else has none, is, in itself, historically insignificant. Most of history’s greatest champions (in my opinion) are the ones who remain unsung.

    —Michael M. DeBonis.

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  8. Michael DeBonis

    I really don’t think Walt Whitman would be impressed with a ridiculous shopping mall named after him. If anything, he’d probably be un-impressed. A library would have been a better idea.
    M. DeBonis.

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  9. Michael DeBonis

    Mr. Weaver,
    Thank you. But l think this conversation has been spoken with gusto and intelligence by you and others, too. I thank the NY History Blog for putting the fire back in historical discussion again.
    Best,
    M. DeBonis.

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  10. Gregory Hubbard

    Many of the controversial statues erected to Confederate heroes were erected to honor white supremacy, many erected during the ‘Jim Crow’ era. So far as I am aware, most of the statues in New York were erected to honor ‘great’ New Yorkers or historic and ethnic heroes, such as Columbus. They were not erected because someone fought for slavery or owned slaves, or to honor an historically important person because he hated Jews.
    To my knowledge, no one in New York has battled to keep any interpretive plaques from being placed on or near these statues and street names to place them in their proper historical perspective. If this had been allowed across the South, we might not be having this conversation now. It’s time for memorials to heroes compromised by modern scholarship everywhere to be updated with the ‘new’ information.
    Early slavery in the United States was based on cheap labor, not on bigotry. The bigotry and condescension seem to have come later, in defense of slavery.
    And, just as an added note, the Bible, in Leviticus, contains instructions on the proper buying and selling of slaves.

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  11. Michael M. DeBonis

    You’ve made several valid points here. There was nothing awe-inspiring about the Confederate cause…I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to erect a statue to any of them. I’m of that mind. I like to see statues of liberators of human beings, not the ones of criminals who mercilessly and unethically put innocent people in chains for greed and self-advancement.

    M. DeBonis.

    Reply

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