NYC Council Members Want to Pull Slaveholder Names Off Public Housing

Public housing in East Harlem.

Public housing in East Harlem. Photo: Spencer Platt for Getty Images

Taking inspiration from Harriet Tubman’s slated replacement of President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus are calling on the New York City Housing Authority to wipe the names of slave owners from its developments—potentially including the names of five former U.S. presidents.

Brooklyn Councilman Robert Cornegy and Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, co-chairs of the BLAC, penned a letter to NYCHA Chairwoman Shola Olatoye requesting she weigh rechristening eight or more complexes currently bearing the appellation of a historical figure who possessed slaves or facilitated the slave trade. The pair in particular recommended the housing authority follow the U.S. Treasury Department’s example, and rename the Bronx’s Andrew Jackson Houses the Harriet Tubman Houses.

“One institution that can lead by example, as the nation reckons with its dark past, is the New York City Housing Authority, which owns and operates several housing developments bearing the names of slave-owners whose historical contributions are far outweighed by their evil deeds,” the letter reads. “Immortality in the nation’s first and largest assemblage of public housing should be reserved for those dedicated to the dignity of all people, including people of color.”

The two politicians noted that roughly 45 percent of the residents of the city’s 328 public housing developments are black, and more than 90 percent of them are nonwhite.

“Why should any of those New Yorkers have their homes named after slave-owners who sustained the most savage institution the United States has ever known?” Cornegy and Torres demanded. “Public housing developments should honor leaders who stood for the founding principles of equality and freedom, not those who stood against them.”

Besides the Jackson houses, a BLAC source identified the Thomas Jefferson Houses and George Washington Houses in East Harlem, the James Monroe Houses in the Bronx, the Ulysses S. Grant Houses in Morningside Heights, the Peter Stuyvesant Gardens in Brooklyn and the Henry Rutgers Houses on the Lower East Side as all bearing the names of people who owned one or more slaves at some point in their lives. In a phone interview with the Observer, Torres called for a “nuanced approach” and a “cooperative process” for renaming, in which NYCHA executives would meet with residents and local elected officials.

“As far as our public housing is concerned, we deserve to dignify them with heroes rather than degrade them with slaveholders,” said Torres, a NYCHA native and chairman of the Council’s Committee on Public Housing.

The councilman highlighted the 2010 redesignation of the Brookdale Houses in the Bronx after Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor as model to follow. But he acknowledged that effacing the names of founding fathers like George Washington could prove “problematic,” and insisted he and Cornegy were not advocating a complete ban or “categorical rule” for slaveholder names, only conversation and reconciliation.

“Think of the life of a historical figure as a bank account. The question you might ask is does the account have more deposits than withdrawals or more withdrawals than deposits,” he said. “I think it is healthy for the city and for the country to grapple seriously with its own history, and to be more mindful and more selective about the people whom we choose to celebrate. We should not romanticize historical figures, we should view them in all their complexity, and judge them by they totality of their historical contributions.”

A NYCHA spokesperson informed the Observer that the authority’s rules do not currently allow for changing moniker of a complex named after a historical figure. But the authority indicated an openness to considering a change in policy, if tenants voiced support.

“We appreciate the intent of the letter and are reviewing the proposal’s feasibility, fully recognizing New York City’s complex history,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Any effort to rename a NYCHA development would begin and end with our residents, who, in many cases, feel attachment to the names that have represented these communities for many years and would have to reach consensus before a change is made.”

 

Read the letter in its entirety below:

Dear Chair Olatoye,

The replacement of Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman as the face of the twenty dollar bill offers an occasion to reexamine the controversial figures whose names have been immortalized here in New York City. One institution that can lead by example, as the nation reckons with its dark past, is the New York City Housing Authority, which owns and operates several housing developments bearing the names of slave-owners whose historical contributions are far outweighed by their evil deeds.

Of 328 housing developments sprinkled throughout the City, at least eight of them are named after historical figures who themselves were slave owners or who had a hand in the transatlantic slave trade. It would behoove NYCHA to explore renaming these developments in partnership with local residents and their elected representatives.

Public housing is the city within a city that half a million New Yorkers—most of them Black, Latino, and Asian—call home. Why should any of those New Yorkers have their homes named after slave-owners who sustained the most savage institution the United States has ever known? Public housing developments should honor leaders who stood for the founding principles of equality and freedom, not those who stood against them. Immortality in the nation’s first and largest assemblage of public housing should be reserved for those dedicated to the dignity of all people, including people of color.

Naming an institution is not mere symbolism. It is a moral sentiment—an emphatic expression of who and what we value as a society. By substituting a liberator for a slaveholder on a common American currency, the Treasury Secretary is conveying to the world that the heroic humanitarianism of a Harriet Tubman is a far greater value than the morally fraught presidency of an Andrew Jackson. The New York City Housing Authority should feel empowered to stand on the same moral high ground, by renaming Jackson Houses after a true upholder of American ideals.

We look forward to seeing the unveiling of Harriet Tubman Houses.

Respectfully,

Hon. Robert Cornegy, Jr., Co-Chair, Black, Latino and Asian Caucus

Hon. Ritchie Torres.,  Co-Chair, Black, Latino and Asian Caucus