‘You don’t have to accept things as they are.’ Brooklyn school sheds its slave-owner name

This story was originally published on April 8 by THE CITY.

On Feb. 26, two votes took place at Public School 9 – a.k.a. the Teunis G. Bergen School, located just north of the Brooklyn Museum.

In the gym, voters were electing the city’s next public advocate. In the auditorium across the hall, parents faced a different kind of choice: Would they remove the name of a scion of a slave-holding family from the Prospect Heights school?

Both elections were decided handily. Jumaane Williams became the city’s public advocate. And P.S. 9’s parent-teacher organization decided unanimously to remove Teunis G. Bergen’s moniker from the Underhill Avenue school.

Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, P.S. 9 will be rechristened the Sarah Smith Garnet School, in honor of the first black woman to serve as a public school principal in New York City. The PTO settled on Garnet after more than a year of debate, during which pioneering Brooklyn Rep. Shirley Chisholm was floated as a Bergen replacement.

The Department of Education approved the choice of Garnet on April 4.

“It goes to show you can get things done, you don’t have to accept things as they are, you can change them for the better,” said Raul Rothblatt, a P.S. 9 parent who suggested the school be renamed after Garnet.

The move came amid a national and local reckoning over everything from old statues to streets honoring people whose legacies are tainted by the sins of history.

Teunis G. Bergen was a descendent of a family with Norwegian and Dutch roots that moved to New Amsterdam in the 17th century – and made their fortune developing property in the land then known as “Breukelen” on the backs of their human property. The family name is all over the borough: Bergen Beach, Bergen Street, two subway stations and at least one other public school.

The family’s history of slavery, like that of the Lefferts in Brooklyn and the Dyckmans in Manhattan, is no secret.

Teunis G. Bergen, a Democratic congressman and historian, was 21 when slavery ended in New York.

Members of the Bergen family said in a statement to THE CITY that they are “deeply disappointed in the repeated efforts of the P.S. 9 PTO to strike [Teunis G. Bergen’s] name from the school.”

But to many parents, changing the name of P.S. 9 seemed an obvious decision in a school where more than 40% of students are black.

“This is about ownership of a school name, and a positive change of a school choosing a name for itself,” said Andrew Case, a P.S. 9 parent.

The story of P.S. 9’s new name began early last year when Case was scanning Twitter.
A Historic Tweet

He stumbled upon an ad published in the Long-Island Star in 1819 by Teunis G. Bergen’s uncle, offering a $40 reward for the return of Dinah and Sam, an enslaved couple who had fled his estate with their infant child.

Case proposed renaming P.S. 9 after Chisholm, who represented a district that included Prospect Heights from 1969 to 1983. But he did not get consent from her heirs, a DOE requirement, and the issue was pushed to the following school year.

Meanwhile, Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress, is set to be the subject of a statue planned for nearby Prospect Park.

P.S. 9 teachers were strongly encouraged to discuss the renaming issue in class and to ask students to suggest names, said Krystal Linton, the parent-teacher organization co-president.

The idea of the school being named after Garnet – an early suffragist who organized with Ida B. Wells, began her career as an educator at age 14 and came from a successful family that founded the Weeksville Society – proved an instant hit at P.S. 9.

That she lived about 2.5 miles away at 748 Hancock St. until her death in 1911 at age 80, only added to the enthusiasm.

Parents Raul Rothblatt, Krystal Linton and Andrew Case (l-r) fought to remove the name Teunis G. Bergen, the scion of a slave-holding family, from Brooklyn’s P.S. 9. The school will be renamed in honor of Sarah Smith Garnet, the first African-American woman to be principal of a New York City public school. (Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY)

Students “were thrilled with her background, and thought she was someone to look up to,” Linton said.

Linton, who owns a tutoring company, hopes the process serves as a lesson for students: “I think they’re proud, I think they know their voice is valued here, and that they’re part of the solution.”

Sandra D’Avilar, P.S. 9’s principal, declined multiple requests for comment.

Rothblatt first met Garnet’s descendents in mid-2018, when the intersection of Nostrand Avenue and Prospect Place was named after Garnet’s sister, Susan Smith McKinney, the first black woman doctor in New York. The family quickly gave him permission to name P.S. 9 after her.

“[Slavery] is one of a million atrocities that has come on in the name of money over people, you know this country’s whole wealth was built on the backs of slaves,” Todd Slaughter, Garnet’s great-great-nephew, told THE CITY.

“I don’t know what took so long. So many things have changed but so many have stayed the same. So when these things happen, it feels good.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.