This story was originally published on March 28 by THE CITY.
A Brooklyn elementary school’s five-year journey to shed a name tied to slavery culminated on Monday with the unveiling of a sign officially renaming P.S. 9 the Sarah Smith Garnet School.
It replaced a sign featuring the name of Teunis G. Bergen, scion of a slave-holding family that made its fortune going back to the 17th century off the backs of its human property on the land then known as Breukelen.
P.S. 9 has been named after Garnet since Feb. 2019, when the school’s parent-teacher organization voted unanimously to rename the Underhill Avenue elementary school after the first Black woman to serve as a public school principal in the city.
At Monday’s unveiling in Prospect Heights, several students wore jerseys with Garnet’s image. Those fifth-graders made the school’s renaming official by cutting the ribbon after reciting a brief biography of Garnet.
The students, reading from prepared remarks, noted Garnet’s more than half-century career as an educator in Brooklyn.
“Think of how many children’s lives she touched in that time,” one student read.
“It’s just great to see this process get fulfilled and to see the school and the community take this idea and run with it,” said Andrew Case, the P.S. 9 parent who in 2017 first raised the idea of renaming the school after learning about Bergen’s history.
The transition spanned three principals, three Department of Education chancellors and two local City Council members — taking so long that Case’s youngest child has already graduated. He says it’s worth the wait.
“I think having a long process for this is not bad, because it shows that the community and the school are in support of it, and are behind it and are around it,” Case said, helping the parent-teacher organization “gain support and legitimacy and momentum” for the transition.
First Black Woman as Principal
The school’s name change coincided with a national reckoning over monuments and other honors for racist figures in history, a reexamination that locally led to the removal of the statue of J. Marion Sims from Central Park in light of his gynecological experiments on enslaved Black women.
Teunis G. Bergen, who was a Democratic congressman and historian, never personally owned any slaves; he was 21 when slavery ended in New York. But his family, much like the Lefferts in Brooklyn and the Dyckmans in Manhattan, were well-known slaveholders.
Case learned of the connection when he spotted a tweet featuring 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.
Bergen Beach, Bergen Street, two subway stations and at least one other public school all still share the family name.
When Case and another P.S. 9 parent, Raul Rothblatt, came with the idea to rename the school they initially wanted to name it after Shirley Chisholm, who was the first Black woman elected to Congress and represented the area surrounding the school. But they did not immediately get consent from her family.
The parent-teacher organization chose Garnet after more than a year of debate that involved P.S. 9 parents and educators along with input from students, too. Changing the name of P.S. 9 seemed an obvious decision to many parents in a school where more than 40% of students are Black.
Krystal Linton, the PTO president at the time, told THE CITY in 2019 that students “were thrilled with her background, and thought she was someone to look up to.”
Garrett Bergen, a representative for the Bergen family, declined to comment on Monday.
Garnet began her career as an educator around 1845, when she was 14 years old, serving as a teacher’s assistant and eventually becoming the first Black female school principal in New York City.
She would go on to serve as a school principal for 37 years, said one of the students, reading from prepared remarks. She belonged to a family of trailblazers: her sister, Susan Smith McKinney, was the first Black woman doctor in New York – and only the third in the country – and their father was a co-founder of Weeksville, a settlement of freed slaves in central Brooklyn within the neighborhood now known as Crown Heights.
Smith lived two and half miles away from the school at 748 Hancock St. until her death in 1911 at age 80.
Building a Monument
The school and the PTO secured the $13,000 required for the new sign before the pandemic through the Department of Education’s Division of School Facilities, but lagged because of it, according to a spokesperson for local Councilmember Crystal Hudson.
Parents and P.S. 9 administrators credited Hudson, who came into office in January, with expediting the process this year.
Garnet, Hudson said, “is someone who few Brooklynites knew about before this name change, but she is now understood to be a central part of our borough’s history. And today we rightly recognize her work.”
Reached by phone on Monday, Todd Slaughter, Sarah Smith Garnet’s great-great nephew, said the honor is “surreal.”
Slaughter noted that a DUMBO park was named after McKinney, whose name also graces a block of Prospect Place near Nostrand Ave.
“These are the stories that we’ve been told by our family over the years, and now it’s being recognized outside the family. The family has always celebrated our history internally, with great pride, and I’m teaching these things to my children now,” Slaughter, 55, said. “But having them publicly recognized and memorialized really takes it to a new level of appreciation for us.”
Efforts to elevate Garnet’s legacy continue at the school: Rothblatt helped develop a 119-page teaching guide for P.S. 9 educators about Garnet and the Black suffragists’ movement in Brooklyn.
And for Women’s History Month, the school participated in the state-wide Women’s Empowerment Draft, an effort by the National Football League, SUNY and CUNY to “celebrat[e] women’s history with the energy that we often save for pro sports teams and superstar athletes.”
The school chose — who else? — Sarah Smith Garnet as its 2022 draft pick.
Addressing the students at the ceremony, third grade parent and current PTO president Jessica Flores said she hoped the grown-ups’ success in renaming the school shows them that “positive change can happen when you are persistent.”
Rothblatt, who secured consent from Garnet’s descendants for the renaming, is currently lobbying to create a monument honoring New York’s Black women suffragists, including Garnet. A petition for the project by local Girl Scout Troop 2663 has gathered more than 5,000 signatures.