Two City Council members are urging NYCHA to rechristen public housing developments named after historical figures who owned slaves or facilitated the slave trade—including prominent New Yorkers like Peter Stuyvesant and Henry Rutgers, as well as five former presidents.
In a letter to NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye, Council Members Robert Cornegy and Ritchie Torres cite the Treasury's recent decision to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill as an "occasion to reexamine the controversial figures whose names have been immortalized in New York City... as the nation reckons with its dark past."
Cornegy and Torres, co-chairs of the Council's Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, have requested that Olatoye consider renaming at least eight of the 328 public housing developments throughout the city:
- The Andrew Jackson Houses in Concourse Village
- The James Monroe Houses in Soundview
- The Thomas Jefferson Houses in Spanish Harlem
- The Henry Rutgers Houses in the Lower East Side
- The Peter Stuyvesant Gardens in Bed-Stuy
- The George Washington Houses in Spanish Harlem
- The Ulysses S. Grant Houses in Morningside Heights
- The Daniel Webster Houses in Claremont Village
According to the council members' letter, more than half a million New Yorkers live in the city's public housing developments. More than 90 percent of NYCHA households are families of color, and roughly 45 percent are black.
"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 wrote.
They continued: "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."
Many recent acts of protest have addressed the racism and misogyny of America’s early political leaders. Thomas Jefferson may have written the Declaration of Independence, but he also owned more than 600 slaves during his lifetime, at least one of whom he raped and fathered children with. (For what it's worth, information about Jefferson's slaves is listed under the "Property" section of Monticello's website).
NYCHA's current rules for renaming a development prohibit properties from being renamed if they are currently named after a person.
"We appreciate the intent of the letter and are reviewing the proposal's feasibility, fully recognizing New York City's complex history," a NYCHA spokesperson told Gothamist. "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."
"We are in the process of reviewing our policy," they added. "Any change to a development's name requires extensive residential engagement and support for the change."
Torres and Cornegy suggested NYCHA take the Treasury's example and rename the Andrew Jackson houses after Harriet Tubman. However, Torres told the Observer that he understood removing certain names—like George Washington's—could be "problematic," and that he and Cornegy were not calling for a "categorical rule" against slaveholder names, only a conversation and reconciliation.
"Naming an institution is not mere symbolism. It is a moral sentiment—an emphatic expression of who we are and what we value as a society," they wrote.
Cornegy and Torres' full letter 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 the 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 we are 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 the Harriet Tubman Houses.
Hon. Robert Cornegy, Jr., Co-Chair, Black, Latino and Asian Caucus
Hon. Ritchie Torres, Co-Chair, Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus