November 25, 2020

Lesser Known Creeps

by Resistance

Background show artwork for Resistance

We all know about the campaigns to tear down statues of Columbus and Lee, but what about the remnants of slavery we walk past every day and don't even realize are there? 

Where to Listen


Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.: Hey what’s good y’all. Saidu here. All right, so today we’ve got a story from one of our reporters, Bethel Habte. And you’ll hear from Bethel from time to time. She'll be reporting stories here and there. And I can promise that they'll always be good. Like today's episode. All right, I'll let Bethel take it from here.

Bethel Habte: It’s one thing to grow up Black in America—to know that this wasn’t a place designed with you in mind. But to grow up black in Virginia, also means that you're constantly surrounded by tiny reminders of that. Virginia held the capital of the Confederacy, or as I’ve come to think of it: the people who wanted slavery so badly that they spilled white blood for it.

Bethel: And growing up there, like I did, means you get reminders of that old regime. Reminders that you’re in the ruins of the Death Star. I’d see the ruins in statues, on school field trips to plantations, in school names. My rival high school was named Robert E. Lee. To get to a regular babysitting gig, I’d take a highway called Jefferson Davis. To get to a cross country race in my junior year, I’d Google directions to Bull Run. It’s a park on a Confederate battleground. My first 10k run in college was in Richmond, Virginia on Monument Avenue, a street in the center of town lined with statue after statue of Confederate generals.

Bethel: But to be honest, none of this really fazed me at the time. I don’t know how to explain this in 2020, except to say that when it’s everywhere, you just don’t really notice it.

Elsa Eli Waithe: And then when you do, you don't even really quite realize it's wrong or bad. In a sense, it kind of almost even made sense to me. Is it bad? Absolutely. But to be matter-of-fact about it, it's baked into the damn pie.

Bethel: This is Elsa Eli Waithe. They’re a comedian from Hampton Roads, Virginia. They also noticed the Death Star ruins everywhere they looked.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Oh, that's the name of a plantation. Oh, that’s a Civil War general. Oh, that’s the name of this. And, you know, being in the South, that kind of makes sense.

Bethel: Elsa grew up on a street named Monitor Street, after an ironclad naval ship in the Civil War that was in a battle that happened about a mile away from their house. So like me, Elsa came to think of these things as unavoidable vestiges of what was.

Elsa Eli Waithe: It's like Virginia: excellent weather, beautiful nature and the seat of the Confederacy. [laughs]

Bethel: But in 2013, Elsa escaped all that. They moved to New York. They wanted to pursue stand-up comedy, and they had kinda squeezed all the juice out of their Virginia comedy scene.

Elsa Eli Waithe: You know, not to toot my own horn, but—beep, beep—sort of became a big fish in a little pond really quickly.

Bethel: Elsa moved to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A couple years later, I moved to Bed-Stuy, the neighborhood right next to it. And we were in the North now. Never saw any statues of Lee or Jackson. That was nice. I mean, there was this one thing.

Bethel: I moved to Jefferson Avenue.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Right.

Bethel: So in some way it was like, I got there and I was like, "Oh, so even here it just doesn't change."

Elsa Eli Waithe: But you see, to me, that makes sense, right? Something like Jefferson Avenue makes sense as he was a president. We immediately, you know, recognize who that is. There's Jefferson. We've got Franklin. You know, we've got Washington. We know those as presidents. But, like, Van Cortlandt? Who is that guy? It doesn't immediately dawn on people that that's someone's name, who that person is. These are—these are, like, lesser-known creeps, you know? [laughs]

Bethel: We all know about the campaigns to take down the Lees, the Jacksons, the Columbuses. But what about those lesser-known creeps? What about all the names in our neighborhoods that we call our own, rep on hoodies, put in songs, hold on tightly to? The names we don’t suspect?

Bethel: I’m Bethel Habte, and this is Resistance—a show about refusing to accept things as they are, even when it means ruining things we’ve learned to love.

Bethel: Early in quarantine, in March, before the protests, before most of us knew what the word "doomscrolling" meant, Elsa found themselves sitting alone in their friend’s house, thumbing through Facebook. They didn’t expect this doomscrolling session to change their whole year.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I don't know what I was looking at or looking for. You know, just scanning the phone.

Bethel: Elsa stopped scrolling when they saw this photo, this scan of a piece of paper with old-time-y type.

Elsa Eli Waithe: And it caught my eye because the photo was a scan of old records.

Bethel: The records turned out to be census records. In the far left column there was a family name.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I sort of focused in, and I seen the names and I was like, "Oh, I know where that street is. Oh, I know where that street is. Oh, that's a—that's a person."

Bethel: The family names wound up being street names all over New York. Boerum, Lefferts, Messerole. Then Elsa scanned to the right of the names. There are columns with the numbers of people in the household: white men, white boys, white females. Then there’s a final column for the number of people they enslaved.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Oh, he owned slaves. These are slave records.

Bethel: Elsa told me this moment peeled their brain back like a sardine can. No Lees or Jacksons, but in that moment, Elsa realizes they’re surrounded by streets named after slave owners, streets they could place in space. And while some people made sourdough bread and adopted dogs and whatnot, Elsa kept doing research into this all through quarantine.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I think the boredom of coronavirus, and my mind having something new and interesting to chew on really gave that life, and I wanted to then look that up further.

Bethel: Elsa didn’t do anything with this information right away. But then a couple months later, George Floyd was murdered on camera. And afterward, like a lot of us, Elsa had a conversation with a friend—one of those cringe-y conversations about racism that your white friends all suddenly wanted to have.

Elsa Eli Waithe: He was in the process of saying that, you know, where George Floyd is from, the police are just aggressive like that, or just, you know, there's a very nonchalant attitude. And I was saying, well, we see these videos coming from all corners of the country. This is in all corners of the country in obvious and not obvious ways.

Bethel: Elsa thought about something that was very obvious—and it didn’t happen far away. It happened right here in Brooklyn in 2014. Elsa was on their way to a stand-up gig at a bookstore.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I was supposed to be going to a bookstore on Franklin Street. And I put it wrong in my GPS and wound up on Franklin Ave. And those are nowhere close to each other.

Bethel: [laughs] Oh, no!

Bethel: They were late. Elsa hopped on a bus to get as close as possible to the gig. And when they were close enough, they started running.

Elsa Eli Waithe: As I'm running, an undercover car—you know, what I realized later is an undercover car at the moment—you know, in the moment it was just a car-car. It hops the curb onto the sidewalk and, you know, I'm running full speed here. So putting the brakes on was sort of, you know, out of the question. And I just run full speed into the front corner panel of this car. And actually, my first thought was, "Oh, no! This guy's having an accident, you know? You know, this guy's having an emergency. He just—you know, he just ran off the road." So I, you know, sort of collect myself and look in the car window to see if, you know, maybe this guy's having a heart attack or something, right?

Elsa Eli Waithe: When I move in for the window, the door of the car flies open and this guy jumps out and he's doing this—the cop thing with the flashlight in my face or whatever. And he's yelling at me. And he's got the undercover badge dangling from his neck. And it quickly dawns on me what's happening. And I've got my hands up and everything. And I'm like, "What the—what the hell's going on?" And his first words to me, never forget it. "Where are you running to? You're running too fast."

Bethel: What?

Elsa Eli Waithe: [laughs]

Bethel: What?

Elsa Eli Waithe: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. Where are you running to? You're running too fast.

Bethel: The cop eventually let Elsa go, but they kept thinking about it.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Had that gone any other way and I would have been hurt and/or killed, nobody would have believed me. I would have just been a Black person versus a cop, and it would have been, "Why were you're running? What was in your hand? Why was your hood up?" Right? All of these things. Not, "Hey, why did he hit you with his car?"

Bethel: So this summer, when Elsa’s friend started talking about how things are different in this part of the country, Elsa immediately thought about that day, about the cop who ran his car off the road to stop them for no reason. And then their mind went back to all the street names they'd spent months learning about.

Elsa Eli Waithe: And I happened to mention that, you know, our streets here in New York are named for slave owners. And my friend was incredulous. It was like, "What?" I was like, "Yeah."

Bethel: Elsa started listing names: Van Cortlandt. Boerum. Messerole. Lefferts.

Elsa Eli Waithe: And I seen it sort of hit my friend in the same way it sort of hit me in looking at that meme. It was like, "Oh, shit!" And I was like, "Bro, actually I could pull up a whole list of these."

Bethel: So they did.

Elsa Eli Waithe: There's a lot of these streets. We've got Bergen, and that's Bergen Street and neighborhood. You know, we've pinpointed streets like Van Cortlandt, which is, you know, up in the Bronx. How many people live in and around all of this and don't know? Folks here in New York, in the North, sort of look the other way at their monuments and streets and things that honor slavery and the same sort of vestiges, and point fingers and finger wag at the South when it's like, hey man, we got some of that same shit here.

Bethel: Elsa gets that street names aren't as in-your-face terrible as the classics of white supremacy: redlining, hate crimes, or a cop willing to run his car off the road when he sees a black person running "too fast." But it seemed like a good place to start.

Elsa Eli Waithe: So if our huge goal is dismantling white supremacy, you know? Well, shit, that's impossible, you know? [laughs] That's like a super huge and broad thing, right? Underneath that would be dismantling smaller vestiges of things that honor white supremacy, right? So let's talk about that on a micro level. And then as we take these micro bites, it chews into the macro problem.

Bethel: After the break, Elsa takes a nibble.


Bethel: Hey, welcome back. So we left off with Elsa finding out that New York is filled with streets named after slave owners. But what felt especially fucked up about the whole thing was that some of these streets run through Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights, Flatbush—predominantly Black neighborhoods. They wanted to do something to get the word out. Elsa bounced ideas off their partner, Ada Reso. And one day, when they were walking around Bed-Stuy together, it hit them.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I don't know, I just sort of seen a sticker for something else and it just sort of dawned on me, I should just—we should just put a sticker right here. And it's just like, ah! Stickers! Folks love a good sticker, right?

Ada Reso: There’s like a code. Like, you kinda like keep an eye out for cops while you’re stickering and if you see one you just kind of yell, "Jesus!" [laughs]

Bethel: Ada and Elsa made it happen. They designed these foot-long green and white stickers with the names of three streets and information about each slaver on them. They took them to a Black-owned print shop that gave them a discount, and wound up with stacks and stacks of these things.

Bethel: The first stickers they put up caught the eye of a woman named Maria Robles. Maria had spent her quarantine researching street names too, after finding out that Lefferts—a name that dominates her neighborhood—was the name of a slave owner. She connected with Ada and Elsa, and their team of two became three.

Bethel: On Halloween, I met up with Ada and Maria in Bed-Stuy to tag along as they stickered.

Bethel: How many do we have here?

Ada Reso: This is at least 300, I think.

Bethel: All 300 with the same message.

Ada Reso: This sticker says "Peter Stuyvesant was a slave trader."

Bethel: Peter Stuyvesant was the director general of the Dutch Colony "New Netherland," which included parts of modern-day New York and New Jersey. He was hellbent on using slave labor to work the colony’s farms, and defend against attacks from Indigenous people. He organized slave auctions in the city, where hundreds of people were bought and sold.

Bethel: I read about this time when he ordered a shipment of people. He complained that they were too old and sick. He said that next time, people like him—honorable and Christian—should get the finest pick of humans. Of course, this guy owned plenty of enslaved people himself. And to put a little asshole cherry on top ...

Ada Reso: I don't know if you mentioned, Maria, we were talking last week about how Peter Stuyvesant, like, pretty much hated anyone who wasn't in the—what is it called, the Dutch Reformed Church?

Bethel: Stuyvesant hated Catholics, Jews, and Quakers.

Ada Reso: I was reading something about Peter Stuyvesant, and about how he—there was a young Quaker preacher who he didn't want to be practicing. And so apparently what he did was he arrested him for being Quaker and practicing it, and then had him go work with one of—I don't know if it was one of his slaves or one of the slaves that was in the area. Like, locked him to like a wheelbarrow or something like that and had him, like, working. And then he instructed the enslaved man to whip this Quaker preacher, and did a lot of torturous things like hanging him upside down. And I mean, these are things we know happened in slavery. But, you know, he enacted it beyond just that.

Elsa Eli Waithe: You know, he was so brutal to the Indigenous people here that he, you know, feared reprisal, as one does, and built a wall around his property. But the wall just sort of ended at the beach. Very ineffectual. So when people did—when the British did eventually come and attack him, they just walked around the wall, as one does. And, you know, just rich asshole who builds walls in New York, you know? We know that guy already. [laughs]

Bethel: And now a street is named after him.

Ada Reso: And a whole neighborhood. You have Bed-Stuy and the high school. Stuyvesant High School.

Bethel: Oh, wow, I didn't think about that. That's, like, it's StuyTown? Like, his name is actually ...

Maria Robles: Yeah, StuyTown. Yeah, there's a lot. This would probably be the most ...

Bethel: We walk north up Stuyvesant Avenue in Bed-Stuy. It’s an undeniably beautiful tree-lined street with old brownstones and black iron gates. It’s the end of fall and we rustle through windswept piles of leaves on the sidewalk.

Bethel: As we walk and talk, we stop every few feet when there’s a good empty space on a lamp post, electrical box, pole, stop sign or trash can. Emphasis on empty space, because there are plenty of posters and graffiti and art on all of these surfaces. They stick a Stuyvesant sticker left of a Breonna Taylor poster. They stick one below a sticker with a pineapple wearing sunglasses. They find this empty space next to a sticker with a very realistic piece of anatomy on it.

Ada Reso: Oh, my God. Is this a nipple? [laughs] Oh, my God. I’m obsessed with this nipple! That’s hilarious.

Bethel: Oh, you're just going south of the nipple, southeast of the nipple.

Maria Robles: Yeah, the nipple will draw you in.

Ada Reso: Yeah, I know. I, like, don't want to cover it at all.

Bethel: It’s Halloween. And as we walk, we pass this little Black kid in a Spider-Man costume. And I found myself thinking, if he reads this, are we ruining this kid’s Halloween? This is kind of a heavy weight to hang on this neighborhood that neither Ada nor Maria or I are from. And neither Ada or Maria are Black. It all just made me wonder: how do people who are from here feel about this kinda shitty piece of information staining their neighborhood’s name?

Bethel: Do you live on Stuyvesant?

Randy: Can you say that again?

Bethel: Do you live on Stuyvesant?

Randy: Yeah. I live right here.

Bethel: Okay.

Bethel: And that’s when we met Randy. This light-skinned dude standing outside his apartment building. We show him the sticker.

Randy: Oh, Peter. That's his first name? Wow. That blows. This is also Do the Right Thing Way right in front of Stuyvesant. Ah, that sucks.

Bethel: Up 'til this point in the day, Ada and Maria had been slapping this information up and walking away, planting, like, these little landmines. This was us sticking around after the impact.

Randy: I never, ever questioned. You know, well, I grew up on 92nd and Columbus. Like, I know that guy. [laughs] I know for sure. But this? I have no—I didn't know. Dang, that actually hurts. This is like a very, very predominantly Black neighborhood, and we haven't done anything about changing these names or bringing awareness to the names. That's so strange. Now this makes me think about all this stuff that—that could be in my face that I'm not noticing.

Bethel: What kind of stuff in your face? What do you mean?

Randy: Anything. Like, I could be eating fucking Cheerios, and it turns out General Mills is an actual, like, slave trader or something. Like, I could be—I don't know what I'm doing and what I'm contributing to. I knew from when I was a little kid, I grew up in a project building, so there was a lot of people like, "You know, Columbus was, like, a maniac, right?" Like, I was always conditioned as a little kid to respond that way when I seen that word, that name Columbus. But with Stuyvesant? I actually was, like, proud. You know, I live in Bed-Stuy, you know? Do or die. And now I don't know. And you know what sucks? It's like this guy is long and dead but, like, we're still saying his name. Like, his name is still coming out of Black people's mouths. And they're, like, so kind of ignorant as to what the hell he was up to. That's—no, dang. Ah, that feels bad.

Bethel: What does the saying out loud of the name do, you think?

Randy: Keeps his spirit alive. It keeps his spirit alive.

Bethel: When Randy said that, I thought about the chants we’ve heard at protests: say her name. Say his name. Say their name. It’s to remember. It’s to honor. It’s to keep those people’s humanity fresh in our minds. What does it mean to keep saying the name Stuyvesant?

Randy: Like, when I'm dead and gone, you know, it'd be like the ultimate egotistical boost to have people still recite my name for stuff, like, years and years later. Like, that—he doesn't deserve that. He didn't do anything to deserve that. And especially like the people whose forebearers that he hurt, you know? He enslaved. Look, we're out here tearing down statues and stuff. It doesn't make me feel as bad. Like, that I can—all right, fine. I'll drive by that statue. I don't give a fuck about it. I'll look at it. I hate it. But I never took any pride in the fact that that statue was there. This I had pride in. I had actual pride in this.

Bethel: The truth hurts. And it sucked to deliver. That pride Randy feels, it’s everywhere in Bed-Stuy. It’s in the Biggie murals and the songs, yeah. But it’s also in this more mundane pride. The idea that this is a place where Blackness can just be, let its gut hang out a little. It’s in the girls wearing bonnets into bodegas. It’s in not worrying if you’re playing your music too loud. It’s in the random guy who plays saxophone on the corner of Hancock sometimes. It’s in the kids playing on bouncy castles when neighbors take turns throwing block parties. And yeah, it’s in hearing a Biggie track blast through someone’s speakers at least once a day if you’re listening.

Bethel: That’s the Bed-Stuy I’ve come to know. That’s what I associate with Stuyvesant. Not this long and dead hateful man who it’s named after. But now they’re all tied together. There’s this Malcolm X line: "I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he's wrong, than the one who comes up like an angel and is nothing but a devil."

Bethel: I can see how finding out that the street names in your neighborhood are named after slavers. It can feel worse than seeing a statue of a Confederate general on a horse. This wasn’t a devil we knew. This feels like a devil that tricked us. But once it all sunk in, Randy wanted to help. He wanted people who live here to know the truth too. He started to look for a place to put a sticker.

Randy: Let me see if I can help you plant this somewhere more, like, strategical.

Bethel: You’re, like, in it. You’re just like, now this is a mission.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I'm not advocating actually one way or another what folks should do with their neighborhoods. I'm advocating for having this knowledge, and that it should be more readily available. We shouldn't have to search for it. You know what I'm saying? And if this is a history that we look back on and it makes us uncomfortable, now is an excellent time to change things, while the machine has slowed down and we are all getting a good look at the gears and how things work, and we are discussing what sort of future we want.

Elsa Eli Waithe: You know, it involves everything from, you know, the president of this country down to what the name of the street you want to live on should be.

Bethel: So what if we did want to change the names? There’s no rule saying that they have to be named after long and dead white dudes. They could be anything we want. Because Elsa's a comedian, we asked them if they could riff on this.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Because it's kind of low hanging fruit, it would be fun and easy to, you know, play around with these things. And it's—it would be good for New York to flex our creative spirit, our individual spirit, our independent spirit. And I think it's past time for New York to get a makeover or an update, you know?

Bethel: Okay, so you have—you've made a list.

Elsa Eli Waithe: I've got some ideas. We ought to name our streets for the shit that really commands respect. Things that deserve honor, things New Yorkers could all agree upon. Of course, we should continue the tradition of naming our streets after great Black history leaders like Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Shirley Chisholm. But what about a block named after Dr. Edward Hollingsworth III? Dr. Edward is a homeless chess genius in the park that reliably kicks my ass in under 10 moves every week. I'm not sure what he's a doctor of, but he insists that everyone uses that honorific. And frankly, I can respect that.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Or what about Neil Street? Who's Neil? Neil is an oddly self-assured five year old riding the subway alone that I met last week. He showed me his Pokémon Go collection on his cell phone that was way nicer than mine. He was really profound, and before he got off the train, he gave me some really dope life advice. And I feel like I probably owe that kid, like, five bucks or something.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Let's have a Dollar Slice Drive. And a block over, we can have Chop Cheese Way, and then a block over from that we have Everything Bagel Street. All three of these streets will meet up, and we'll call that Bacon, Egg and Cheese Junction. In the middle of Bacon, Egg and Cheese Junction will stand a monument of a cat wearing a North Face bubble vest sitting on top of a loaf of bread. We'll call him Mohammed the bodega cat, and we'll all leave single loose cigarettes and cat treats to thank him for keeping all of our favorite snacks safe and rat free.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Okay. Now I know this next one might be a stretch, but I need you to work with me here. All right? How about [singing] New York, Concrete Jungle, Where Dreams Are Made Of Boulevard? Now I understand that that might not be practical for a street sign, but I think we can all agree that that song is an absolute New York City banger. It's hella motivational and inspiring. And my father hates everything good in this world, but he absolutely loves that song. And for penetrating my father's icy heart alone, that song deserves a street.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Now this next one is just for me. I want to rename a street Line Starts Here, just to see what happens, okay? New Yorkers love standing in lines for unknown reasons. This is a social experiment that I'm kind of curious about. We can totally change the name of the street back after a week or so. I just want to record some findings.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Now check it, just like Times Square and Canal Street, we'll have places that we'll want to avoid, okay? We put all the construction workers and cat callers all on one road, all right? And unless you really want to hear, "Hey yo, ma! Let me suck a fart out that ass!" You could avoid that street completely, okay? We'll call it Hey Yo Ma Road. I really, really, really want to hire a voice actor for GPSs just to do that, just to do that street name.

Elsa Eli Waithe: Now I understand officially changing a street name can be a really long and drawn-out process. I looked it up and it's, like, three pages of forms to fill out. And those are, like, front and back pages too, right? And who the hell has attention for that, right? Which is why I suggest we just say fuck the paperwork. We have several neighborhood meetings, figure out what it is we all like and then just start calling it that. Similar to when you go pick out a cat and they tell you that the cat's name is Mittens, but then you get home and you say, "Fuck that. You're most definitely Colonel Whiskerton now." And guess what? The cat is Colonel Whiskerton now.

Elsa Eli Waithe: We can just start doing the same thing. "Oh, you live on Van Cortlandt Street?" "No, I live on Very Important Yet Garbled Subway Announcement Road."

Bethel: [laughs]

Bethel: Thanks for listening. Resistance is hosted by Saidu Tejan Thomas Jr, and produced by me, Bethel Habte, Wallace Mack and Aaron Randle. Our supervising producer is Sarah McVeigh.

Bethel: We’re edited by Lynn Levy, Lydia Polgreen and Brendan Klinkenberg. Mixing and scoring by Catherine Anderson and Bobby Lord. Theme by Bobby Lord. Original compositions by Drea the Vibe Dealer. Our music supervisor is Liz Fulton. Fact-checking is by Michelle Harris. Our show art is by Darien Birks of The Stuyvesants. We told them about the name. They're cool.

Allan: The Stuyvesants is us. And that’s it. [laughs]

Bethel: Credits music is "Call Your Name" by Tora. Special thanks to Darien Birks and Allan Cole of The Stuyvesants. If you wanna feel good about that name again, check out their music. You can check out Elsa, Ada and Maria’s work on Twitter and IG @slaversofny.

Bethel: If you enjoyed this episode, tell a friend about it. You can find me on Twitter at @bethel_habte, and you can follow us on IG @resistanceshow.

Bethel: Resistance is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. See y’all in 2 weeks.