Place  /  Q&A

Mapping the History of Slavery in New York

A group of activists is calling attention to the legacy of slavery encoded in the names of New York City’s streets and neighborhoods.

Nostrand, Bergen, Stuyvesant: Many of New York City’s streets and neighborhoods are named after families who owned or traded slaves. For a number of New Yorkers, this fact is unsurprising. Slavery was a source of colossal wealth for the city, fueling the construction of both local infrastructure and the Southern plantations from which its businesses extracted huge profits. In 1730, 42 percent of families in New York City owned at least one person; many slaves were bought and sold at a market located on what is presently known as Wall Street. Still, the origin of the city’s street names elicits disbelief in others. Some are haunted by the question: In 2021, why are slavers still dignified with toponyms?

Streets names are an inescapable part of navigating city life, embedded into the addresses of our homes, schools, and workplaces. It is near impossible to give directions in Brooklyn, for example, without invoking the name of a historic local slaver. The family of nineteenth-century congressman Teunis G. Bergen, for whom Bergen St. is named, owned at least forty-six people in 1810. Nostrand Avenue is named for one of the first Dutch families to colonize Manhattan. The family went on to own approximately forty-three people between 1790 and 1820.

Co-naming a street is an increasingly popular way for communities to interrupt these narratives that privilege slave-owning colonists and wealthy landowners. But the process can often a take up to a year, and is at the discretion of community boards, whose procedures vary across the city, and the City Council. Even when passed into local law, the changes are not reflected on the official city map. So activist group Slavers of New York is changing the streetscape by different means: archival research, mapping, and small-scale interventions. Part of their work involves literally contextualizing the city’s street signs with straightforward, uncomfortable notes about the families and individuals for whom they were named. Here the group’s three founders, Elsa Waithe, Maria Robles, and Ada Reso, discuss their mission to place facts in the hands of everyday people, and to bring attention to legacy of slavery encoded in the city’s signs.

Francesca Johanson

Francesca Johanson: How common is it for a street in New York City to be named for a slave owner or trader?

Elsa Waithe: When I tell people, several times over, that a street—such as Nostrand Avenue or Stuyvesant Street—is named for a slave owner, they’re like, “Oh, really?” or, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was somebody’s name.” We know Columbus, and we know all the presidents. But Nostrand, Stuyvesant, Cortelyou, and Suydam—many people don’t know about their direct involvement with slavery. Place and street names have been so far removed from people.

Maria Robles: There are lots of Jefferson streets and lots of Washingtons. But often a street is named for the person whose land the street happens to run through. Then there are names that aren’t necessarily well known to New Yorkers—names like Totten, which is used quite a bit throughout Staten Island for neighborhoods and streets. That’s just one example. There are a lot of records that show particular individuals who owned slaves.