Outrage over the penitentiary’s mistreatment of inmates has aligned with a movement to expunge racist names from American institutions. What do we gain — and lose — in re-naming Rikers Island?
By Will Di Novi
The Hon. Richard Riker, Recorder of the City of New York, in 1826. (Image: The New York Public Library Digital Collections)
The name sounds dangerous.
When the Harlem Historical Society launched a petition last year to re-name New York’s Rikers Island, the initiative had a blunt emotional appeal. For almost a century, this East River landmark has housed one of America’s most notorious penitentiaries, while a series of recent prisoner abuse scandals have put the city jail back in the national spotlight and made its Dutch surname synonymous with violence and despair.
But the petition was also responding to an older, less visible wound: Long before it became the site of the nation’s second-largest jail, Rikers was the home of one of New York City’s most prominent families, a Dutch-American dynasty with ties to the slave trade. In his latest book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner reveals that one of the family’s most celebrated figures, a legal official named Richard Riker, was part of a kidnapping ring that terrorized black New Yorkers in the 1800s.
Foner’s book and the Society’s petition have arrived at a moment when communities across the United States are re-evaluating place names that celebrate former proponents of slavery. State leaders in Tennessee are re-considering the name of Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park, a recreation area dedicated to a slave-trader, Confederate general, and grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Yale University has been embroiled in a heated dispute over Calhoun College, an undergraduate residence that honors the 19th-century statesman and virulent white supremacist John C. Calhoun. In Houston, battle lines have been drawn over Dowling Street, a four-mile tribute to a sabre-wielding veteran of the Confederate Army. In a bitter twist of fate, and Texas asphalt, the street runs past the city’s Emancipation Park.
For generations, these names were nothing more than white noise in our civic discourse, familiar sounds with unfamiliar origins. But “we are now facing a growing acknowledgement that slavery haunts the national imagination,” says Mark Auslander, a professor of anthropology at Central Washington University. Auslander is the author of The Accidental Slaveowner, an acclaimed book about a Georgia community struggling with its slaveholding past. He views initiatives like the Rikers Island petition as evidence of a cultural shift in how Americans are discussing the “Peculiar Institution.”
With city and state officials now considering whether to shut down the Rikers Island Jail, it is worth re-visiting how the Riker name came to represent both a contemporary crisis and a series of long-forgotten historical crimes.
“There was a long attempt to contain slavery by saying that formal chattel was limited to the American South, “ he explains. “Now we realize that slavery’s impact can’t be circumscribed geographically or historically.”
The controversy surrounding Richard Riker has been unfolding hundreds of miles north of the Mason-Dixon line and hundreds of years removed from his reign of terror at New York’s Court of Sessions. With city and state officials now considering whether to shut down the Rikers Island Jail, it is worth re-visiting how the Riker name came to represent both a contemporary crisis and a series of long-forgotten historical crimes. Those five timeworn letters are becoming a symbol of slavery’s spectral presence in the American landscape, and the challenges of confronting that specter in productive ways.
“When something is irreconcilable, we experience the uncanny,” Auslander says. “There’s this strange sense of having been there before.”
Rikers Island sits off the northern shoreline of Queens, 10 miles upriver from the deep-water harbor where the first Riker ancestor arrived in the New World. When 19-year old Abraham Ryken arrived in New Amsterdam in 1638, he quickly assimilated to the entrepreneurial culture of the bustling Dutch colony. He tilled the land, traded furs, and made a series of shrewd investments that would secure his family’s fortune for generations to come. In 1664, with the British poised to seize the colony (and re-name it after the Duke of York), Ryken convinced Director-General Peter Stuyvesant to grant him the rights to the 87-acre island on which the Rikers Island Jail now stands. His descendants lived on this island and a neighboring mainland estate for the next two hundred years, eventually adopting an anglicized surname: Riker.
The Rikers built their fortune at a time when African slaves were the backbone of the colonial workforce. When Abraham’s relative Hendrick Rycken died in 1701, he left three slaves to his surviving family members. When his grandson Andrew died in 1762, his will contained instructions to sell the family’s “misbehaving” servants. A century later, descendant James Riker wrote a history of the family’s northern Queens community and described it as a place where “slaves were found even in the ministers’ families.”
A guard at the entrance to Rikers Island penitentiary, circa 1955. (Photo: Three Lions/Getty Images)
Under British and American rule, New York’s slave population expanded, its racial hierarchies stiffened, and the Rikers flourished. Scroll through A Brief History of the Riker Family, another James Riker genealogy from 1851, and you’ll encounter lawyers and bankers, congressmen and military officers. On page 18, amid an endless catalogue of well-fed Dutchmen, there is an entry for one of Abraham’s great-great-grandsons, a man acclaimed for “his great attainments and high moral worth.” It is with this man, born on the mainland estate across from Rikers Island in September 1773, that the institution of slavery moves to the foreground of the family’s story.
As New York’s City Recorder from 1815 to 1838, Richard Riker was the legal official responsible for returning the city’s fugitive slaves to their masters in the South. In Gateway to Freedom, Eric Foner details Riker’s involvement in a network of pro-slavery officials and slave-traders known as the “Kidnapping Club.” Riker’s allies would detain both escaped slaves and free blacks alike, and present them at the Court of Sessions. Riker would deport them to the South before they could obtain a lawyer or a witness to testify on their behalf.
Riker served three terms as Recorder and the city’s official classes remembered him fondly after his death in 1842. Every few decades, the New York Times would run an article about the man known as “Dickey,” printing a faded sketch of his prominent nose, pursed lips, and bald pate. The aging blue-bloods of upper Broadway would reflect wistfully on his friendship with Governor Dewitt Clinton, and the limp he acquired in a duel to defend Clinton’s honor. In his “History of New York City,” from 1884, the popular historian Benson John Lossing draws a typically reverent portrait of the late Recorder. Riker was “remarkably courteous and gentlemanly in his deportment,” Lossing writes, “the last man to wound by word or manner.”
This civic hero faded into obscurity at the turn of the century. When his descendants sold Rikers Island to the city in the 1880s, it became the site of one of the world’s largest penal colonies, and the family name started to lose some of its luster. If you had asked most New Yorkers of the mid-20th century what they thought of when they heard the name “Riker,” they would have described a barbed-wire fortress where local mobsters were sent on gambling charges. They would have pictured a neighborhood junkie in pinstripes, locked up for possession of the cheap heroin that was then flooding the streets of the city.
Yet there were certain quarters of American life in which the Riker name remained a mark of pedigree. In the 1970s, while the prisoners on Rikers Island were rioting over inhumane conditions at the House of Detention for Men, Richard Riker made periodic cameos in the wedding announcements of the Times. Among the newlyweds who filled the Style pages, he was a distinguished ancestor who could be name dropped alongside boarding schools, brokerage houses, and debutante balls. Depending on the section of the newspaper you were reading, the Riker name meant blood or money — never both.
In 2003, those two stories finally converged. That was the year that Emory University historian Leslie M. Harris published In the Shadow of Slavery, a groundbreaking history of African-American life in New York City. “For a long time, the research and witnessing of radical abolitionists was largely discounted by the mainstream historical profession,” she recalls. By turning to long-overlooked black and anti-slavery sources, Harris was able to piece together the first widely read account of Richard Riker’s involvement in the New York Kidnapping Club.
Colgate University’s Graham Hodges built on Harris’ research in David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City. This 2010 biography of an abolitionist-journalistuncovered numerous examples of the judicial abuses at Riker’s court, including one diabolical episode in which he tried to send a free seven-year old boy into slavery. The book documents the beginnings of the tortuous, 200-year association between the Riker name and the criminal justice system of the U.S.
Depending on the section of the newspaper you were reading, the Riker name meant blood or money — never both.
With the publication of Gateway to Freedom, Riker’s transgressions are revealed to an even wider audience. Perhaps no one is more encouraged by the success of this Times bestseller than Jacob Morris, the director of the Harlem Historical Society. In his 15 years with the Society, Morris has come to see Richard Riker as “the spider at the center of a web of injustice” that engulfed black New Yorkers in the 1820s and ’30s.
Morris read Gateway to Freedom last spring, right as a new series of prisoner abusescandals on Rikers Island was seizing national headlines. When he opened theTimes each morning, he says that accounts of life at the contemporary jail were eerily harmonious with Foner’s descriptions of the pre-Civil War justice system. “Symbolically it’s disgraceful,” Morris remembers thinking. Rikers Island inmates were being brutalized by guards and spending years in jail without a conviction. After the June suicide of Kalief Browder, a former juvenile inmate who had been beaten by the jail’s correction officers, he decided that the Society had to respond.
Last July, his team began to circulate a petition demanding “that the name ‘Riker’ be removed in all ways from the Penal Institution and Island that currently bears [its] Name.” After collecting an initial round of signatures, Morris sent this open letter to Mayor Bill De Blasio, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams. He had successfully advocated for the naming of over 40 streets and parks across the city but this was one of the first times he’d tried to explicitly remove a person’s name from a local landmark.
The response was underwhelming. Morris was approached by two city council members who expressed interest in sponsoring name-changing legislation, but neither followed through, and he still hasn’t received a response from anyone in the upper levels of city government. One of his primary petitionees, Borough President Adams, continues to promote his own name-changing project: Last June, Adams announced his intention to change the names of two Brooklyn streets named after Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
As such initiatives proliferate around the country, a lively debate is emerging over the merits and methods of changing historical place names. Some recent proposals have provoked a backlash from conservative lawmakers, who have passed sweeping new protections for landmarks that honor white supremacists. When the city of Memphis re-named a municipal park dedicated to Nathan Bedford Forrest, Republican state legislators responded by passing the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act of 2013, which states that “no statue, monument, memorial, nameplate or plaque” that honors the country’s veterans may be altered in any way.
The changing of historical names also unsettles some historians, who fear that the revisionist vogue will gloss over the sins of the past. “I worry sometimes that the idea that we could just change the name and wish away these terrible burdens of history won’t get us very far,” Auslander says. “We need to use the debates over naming as an opportunity to ask questions about how we are still dominated by these burdens of an unresolved past.”
The historian who inspired Morris’ petition agrees. “I have no objection to re-naming schools [and] landmarks when really horrendous people are involved,” Eric Foner writes in an email. But he generally prefers “to add rather than subtract,” advocating for the construction of memorials to black Reconstruction leaders and slave rebels alongside the tributes to dead white men that dominate the country’s sites of remembrance. And Foner remains agnostic about the effort to re-name Rikers Island: “As I understand it, the island is named not for the infamous Richard Riker but for a distant ancestor, which makes the situation much more murky.”
“I wouldn’t change the name of Rikers Island until we have created a more fair justice system. The name should continue to be a thorn in our side to do better.”
Four centuries after Abraham Ryken bought the rights to this New York City landmark, his family’s name is as laden with strife and symbolism as the penal institution it now denotes. Despite the tepid response to Jacob Morris’ petition, many New Yorkers would, in fact, like to terminate the historic relationship between the Riker family and the criminal justice system. As outrage mounts over the violent conditions at the Rikers Island Jail, a proposal to shut down the complex and move its inmates to smaller facilities across the city is winning powerfulsupporters, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. A commission led by the state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, is currently studying the feasibility of such a plan, which would take many years and billions of dollars to implement.
Shutting down Rikers would also raise challenging questions about how to preserve the Island’s history and acknowledge the sins of its namesake family. The story of Richard Riker “is one of the rare cases where the history of the person and the legacy of his beliefs align very well,” Leslie Harris says. While Harris is encouraged that “more and more people are aware of the legacy of slavery,” she believes that we are only beginning to confront the lingering effects of that once-ubiquitous institution on public institutions like the Rikers Island Jail.
“I wouldn’t change the name of Rikers Island until we have created a more fair justice system,” she says. “The name should continue to be a thorn in our side to do better.”