Six Honored New York City Figures Who Were Actually Garbage Humans
Last month, as waves of heated racial-justice protests swept college campuses around the country, over a dozen members of the student activist group Black Justice League occupied Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber’s office with a list of demands.
Founded last year with the goal of dismantling racism at Princeton, the coalition called for cultural competency training for all staff and faculty members, as well as a cultural space on campus dedicated specifically to black students. But above all else, the group demanded that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” — the 28th president of the United States and 13th president of Princeton — “and how he impacted campus policy and culture.”
Though the storied Ivy League institution continues to honor Wilson on its grounds — most notably with its venerated Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs — the protests bring to light the former president’s staunch segregationist ideals. “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you,” Wilson once told Monroe Trotter, a prominent African-American civil rights activist and newspaper editor.
Following the sit-in at his office, Eisgruber has agreed to begin talks with Princeton trustees about meeting the students’ demands, though a mural of Wilson continues to loom over the university’s dining hall as the fall semester draws to a close.
But if student activists in New Jersey are concerned with landmarks and institutions honoring bigoted old white men, they would do well to look across the Hudson River at New York City — a cultural melting pot where streets, neighborhoods, buildings, and public parks continue to draw their names from an impressive list of old-time anti-Semites, slave-owners, racists, and persecutors.
Some kept their prejudices close to the vest; others flaunted bigotry openly in their policies. In either case the views and actions of these men forever altered the political, cultural, and geographic makeup of the five boroughs and beyond. Here, as a reminder of their pasts, are six historic New Yorkers who left the city with less-than-spotless legacies.
Peter Stuyvesant, Director-General of New Amsterdam
For much of the seventeenth century, before New York City was New York City, the southern tip of Manhattan Island was the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. And from 1647 until 1664 — when the English finally wrested control of the region from the Dutch, renaming it after the Duke of York — New Amsterdam was under the rule of Director-General Peter Stuyvesant, who served as a colonial version of a governor for the settlement.
Though he still lends his name to a number of modern-day housing developments, neighborhoods, and schools scattered throughout the city — Stuyvesant Town in the East Village, Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Stuyvesant High School in Battery Park City, to name a few — in his day Stuyvesant was a rabid anti-Semite.
Traveling as refugees from Recife, Brazil, the first Jews arrived to New Amsterdam after the Portuguese reclaimed control of the South American territory from the Dutch in 1654. Stuyvesant sought to block the Jews from relocating in his settlement and, writing to the Dutch East India Company, asked that "the deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ — be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony."
In 1655, while presiding over New Amsterdam’s governing council, Stuyvesant would ban Jewish residents from joining the local militia, claiming that non-Jewish members expressed “disgust and unwillingness” to serve beside them. Incredibly, the Jews of New Amsterdam would then be made to pay a monthly fee to the government for not fulfilling their guard-posts.
Fiorello H. La Guardia, Mayor of New York City
Fiorello La Guardia was exceedingly popular during his three terms as mayor, and New York continues to name high schools, colleges, public parks, and buildings — not to mention one of its major airports— after the Republican politician from Greenwich Village. But following the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, La Guardia made the city’s Japanese residents stay in their homes, ordered the NYPD to shut down every Japanese restaurant in the five boroughs, and then rounded up hundreds of Japanese men and women to be sent to Ellis Island. During World War II, Ellis Island — which today largely stands as a symbol of the American Dream, along with the nearby Statue of Liberty — served as a detention center and temporarily housed Japanese, German, and Italian immigrants being transferred to other internment camps around the country.
In 1944, as Japanese Americans were being released from internment camps, La Guardia strongly opposed their relocation to New York. He believed it was unfair to "turn these people loose" and "force them on New York City" and argued that the Japanese were a danger to the area’s shipping facilities and military sites. "Is there one single solitary United States official who will vouch for each and every one of them?" he asked. "If anything happens, the responsibility is not with the city. The responsibility is with the federal government." These days, as something of an ultimate "fuck you," LaGuardia Community College offers, you guessed it, Japanese language courses.
James De Lancey, Lieutenant Governor of New York and Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court
Before James De Lancey would officially become lieutenant governor of New York in 1753, he served as chief justice of the State Supreme Court and presided over trials connected to the Slave Insurrection of 1741, a supposed plot to overthrow slaveowners in the area using arson. Many historians argue that there was never a plot to begin with, and today the episode is likened to the Salem Witch Trials. Still, that didn’t stop the court from sentencing dozens of black men to be burned at the stake, hanged, and sold back into slavery. Unsurprisingly, De Lancey was a slaveowner himself, and his "most valued slave," Othello, was also executed as a result of the court rulings.
Historians Sydney Howard Gay and William Cullen Bryant wrote of the trials in their book A Popular History of the United States in 1879: “For its disregard of all rules of legal evidence, for its prostitution of the forms of law for the perpetration of cruelty, for popular credulity and cowardice, for the abnegation of all sense of mercy, for the oppression of the weakest and most defenceless, it was without precedent, and has had no parallel in any civilized community."
De Lancey’s 300-acre farm was located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Delancey Street now sits. Orchard Street, which intersects with Delancey, also derives its name from the family’s plantation.
Robert Moses, City Planner
Often referred to as the “Master Builder” of New York, Robert Moses was a city planner responsible for drastically reshaping the landscape of the five boroughs and their surrounding suburbs in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. He transformed New York from a city of public transportation and small, brownstone-laden neighborhoods into a metropolis of skyscrapers and automobile-packed thoroughfares. The Triborough Bridge, the Verrazano Bridge, the West Side Highway, Lincoln Center, the United Nations and countless other buildings, tunnels, parks, and bridges are all the children of Moses in one way or another. “Those who can, build,” he once said. “Those who can't, criticize.”
And criticize they did. Today, few doubt that many of Moses's projects were motivated by racism. In 1974 the journalist and author Robert Caro published a scathing, 1,246-page biography on Moses titled The Power Broker, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. The book accused Moses of dividing New York by race and class, operating outside the democratic process by wielding power without election or oversight, and creating a system of bridges too low for trucks and buses in order to keep poor people of color out of the suburbs in Long Island. Writing for the New York Times on the fortieth anniversary of The Power Broker last year, Caro called Moses's racism "unashamed" and "unapologetic" and claimed that the city planner believed African Americans were inherently "dirty." The many bridges Moses built throughout New York "embodied racism in concrete," Caro said.
In a 3,500-word rebuttal to The Power Broker in '74, responding to criticism regarding the displacement of New Yorkers for his projects, Moses wrote callously, “I raise my stein to the builder who can remove ghettos without removing people as I hail the chef who can make omelets without breaking eggs.”
Henry Hudson, Explorer
Backed by the Dutch East India Company beginning in 1609, Henry Hudson was an English explorer who discovered modern-day New York and the surrounding region while searching for a western sea route to Asia. The Hudson River, the Henry Hudson Bridge, the Henry Hudson Parkway, Hudson County, New Jersey, and the city of Hudson in Columbia County, New York, are all named after the explorer.
When Hudson and his men first came ashore, there were roughly 10,000 Native Americans living on either side of the Hudson River, according to E.M. Rutterber’s Indian Tribes of Hudson's River to 1700. After successfully trading with the local tribes and sending the goods back to the Netherlands, Hudson effectively began the fur trade in the Hudson Valley and set in motion the Dutch colonization of the region. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Native American population was all but wiped out by war and smallpox brought on by the European settlers. Ninety percent of the population of certain villages was killed.
Hudson’s last voyage began in 1610 and ended in mutiny in 1611, with his crew sending the explorer, his son, and several other men out on a small boat in the ice-filled Hudson Bay. He was never seen again.
Theodore Roosevelt, President, Legislator, Killer of Elephants, Humans
Theodore Roosevelt was born in a brownstone on East 20th Street in 1858 and would go on to become a state assemblyman, New York City police commissioner, and the 26th president of the United States. Despite his legacy as a politician, in 2015 Roosevelt’s reputation is based largely on legends of machismo, bravery, and outdoorsmanship — long-told tales chronicling his hunting expeditions, boxing tournaments, and scaling of snow-capped mountains like the Matterhorn.
But if the many photographs of Roosevelt posing next to dead cheetahs and lifeless elephants aren’t enough to rouse one’s conscience, today Teddy is also known for being a hawkish warmonger, despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 1908.
Writers Evan Thomas and James Bradley both include Roosevelt in their books The War Lovers and The Imperial Cruise, published in 2010.
“[Thomas and Bradley] both take Roosevelt to task for being, at times, a racist, a jingoist and a warmonger,” Ronald Steel wrote for the New York Times. “Barking his commands and posing for photographers in his tailored military uniforms, Theodore Roosevelt was the very image of a war-loving martinet.”
Indeed, despite the hellish brutality of war, Roosevelt favored the romanticism of armed conflict and the effects battle had on men of power.
“If there is not the war, you don't get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don't get a great statesman,” Roosevelt once said. “If Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name.”
In the city, Theodore Roosevelt Park, which surrounds the American Museum of Natural History (which he helped found, presumably because of his love of nature and wildlife), bears his name. You know what else was for some reason named after this notorious lover of shooting animals until they were dead? The fucking teddy bear.
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