Petition circulates to rename Riker’s Island to nix reference to slavery supporter

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NEW YORK — A petition is making the rounds demanding that Riker's Island be renamed because of Richard Riker's intimate involvement with slavery, the latest in a nationwide call for landmarks and flags to remove names and references associated with racist or unjust individuals or eras.

"So the question becomes, as a city, what do we want to represent to the rest of the world? What message are we sending out about who is important and whose story should be told?" said Stacey Toussaint, president of Inside Out Tours and a New York City historian.

Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, said aside from supporting slavery, Riker himself was a lawbreaker, which makes the jail an oxymoron of the legal system.

"He was the spider at the center of the web," Morris said of Riker.

Riker was the chief magistrate of New York City for more than 20 years and made money from kidnapping black children and selling into slavery, Morris said.

"You know there is nothing redeeming about that," he said.

But there was nothing truly redeeming about the nation or New York City in the mid-1700s. It was far difference then, when one in five people was enslaved and almost half of all Manahttan households included a slave.

"There used to be a wall on Wall Street and that was actually built through enslaved labor," Toussaint told PIX11 News at Water and Wall streets.

That intersection is significant because during the city's infancy "you would have come and you would have seen enslaved people standing at a location which was the first slave market in New York City," she said.

She said the majority of the public -- including politicians -- have no idea there are city buildings and streets named after historical figures, such as James Delancey and John Astor, who had ties to slavery.

"Many people do not know the history of New York City with respect to slavery, so they are shocked when they find out that New York City was a major slave hub in the north," Morris said.

Morris thinks there is a chance at changing the cosmetics of the city when it comes to notable slaveowners.

"The potential is there for on a case-by-case basis to look into the history of the namings and then discuss in an open and transparent way, their history," he said.

But it may also create an opportunity to further highlight David Ruggles and homes the one in Tribeca that was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad. Ruggles, whose former home received a plaque of recognition from the city less than 10 years ago, is considered a hero abolitionist yet he is also a virtual unknown in the city.

"Does David Ruggles have a street named after him? No, he does not. A park? No. Would Ruggles Street sound better than Delancey? I think we should honor the people that did the right thing," Morris said.

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