the stolen history of new york

Examining the stories of the people and places lost in time to uncover the legacy of slavery and colonialism in modern-day Manhattan

jennifer mei


In honor of my third year as a New Yorker and in light of the ongoing demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter movement and discourse around the significance of historical monuments, I thought I’d write about New York’s stolen history — the hidden and lesser-known parts that are omitted from modern documentation but are vitally important to the city’s history. “Stolen” because these stories were often deliberately erased out of shame and the contributions of marginalized communities erased. But part of becoming a better and actively anti-racist society is grappling with the darkest parts of our history.

From the subtly racist, like the ubiquitous ice cream truck jingle (as it turns out, a lot of the things we took for granted, like ice cream trucks and square dancing in elementary school, are byproducts of white supremacy), to the blatant erasure of indigenous people, New York City is filled with small markers of its checkered history that you may not notice at first blush. But once you know what to look for, you see the signs everywhere.

In understanding all of this, I found a lecture called “Colonial Persistence in New York City” by Benoît Challand at A Night of Philosophy and Ideas last year particularly useful, the motif of which was “facing our present.” It speaks to a shared responsibility to acknowledge the horrors committed by the city as part of our collective identity. In order to move forward, we have to fight against our colonial legacy and highlight solidarity and reclaiming spaces created by marginalized groups.

Colonialism invokes a distant past of ugly European occupation, but many contemporary examples in living traits and practices remind us of its relevance. The official flag of New York City reveals an ignorance of its past — there’s this trope of New York City as a migrant city, but it had a violent past that is often disregarded altogether.

Of course, it is impossible to report on the city’s history without acknowledging the significance of the present moment. We are witnessing history being made right now, with the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the aftershocks of George Floyd’s murder by police — the daily Black Lives Matter marches, the protest art adorning Manhattan institutions, and the…