In East Hampton, if you had a street named for you before the 20th century, odds were that you were an enslaver. We know this because of the work I and others have been doing with the Plain Sight Project gathering the names and, if not names, the identities of enslaved people on eastern Long Island.
We decided to call our new nonprofit the Plain Sight Project because the names and even stories and other information about unfree people are not difficult to find. For example, when a summer intern at The Star read through the early East Hampton church records of baptisms and deaths, she quickly assembled a list of more than 300 people who appeared to have been enslaved.
Another thing was obvious from the outset: Nearly every family of means, whether in land or livestock or receiving an income as the town minister, were enslavers. The same is true on the North Fork, in Southampton, and on Shelter Island. Slavery was ubiquitous and ordinary here on Long Island for almost 180 years, as are street names honoring the enslavers.
The word enslaver might sound not quite right to some, however, the general trend now is to not use the term “slave” — or slave owner. To call someone a slave is to imply that that is their state of being, that that is who and what they are, which is a way of continuing the racist ideology that allowed their enslavement in the first place.
I believe, and though it might be a mouthful, using “enslaved person” and “enslaver” are much more reflective of the truth. Slave owner is passive; enslaver signifies an ongoing act of keeping another human being enslaved, each day at a time that they remain in bondage.
The names of enslaver families here should be familiar. They include Huntting, Osborne, Buell, Dayton, Edwards, Mulford, James, Hedges, Barnes, Loper, Hand, Rysam, and Gardiner. It is impossible for me, now knowing what I know, to look at the street signs — even homeowners associations — memorializing these people without thinking of what they represent. I count many of my ancestors among them and know that I share their guilt.
Donnamarie Barnes and I put the question of what might be done to a group in an online event on Monday hosted by Guild Hall and Ma’s House on the Shinnecock Reservation. There were, there are, no easy answers. But the question remains: What do we do about it now that we know?