Dear Dr. Scribblercan:
A statue of Abraham de Peyster sits in a prominent place on a pedestal beside the new F&M art building on Buchanan Avenue. Slavery was common in New York during the time of de Peyster’s business and political career. Did Abraham de Peyster own slaves?
Did de Peyster help to bring slavery to an end, or did he mostly serve the cause of expanding slavery?
As one of the many people who walk past the statue frequently, I would be curious to know the answer.
Please excuse the Scribbler while he searches for an appropriate tool to open this can of worms.
OK, the can is open and, yes, indeed, Abraham de Peyster (1657-1728) enslaved at least nine and as many as 13 African Americans, depending on who is counting and when. De Peyster’s slaves kept his Manhattan mansion humming while he served as New York’s mayor.
There is no indication that de Peyster attempted to end or to expand slavery. Like a lot of slave owners in early America, he probably accepted slavery as part of life.
For those who do not walk frequently past the 15-foot-tall bronze statue depicting de Peyster sitting in a chair, holding a book under one arm, here is a capsule history of the man and his memorial.
The Dutch-born de Peyster became one of early Manhattan’s wealthiest merchants and philanthropists. He served as mayor from 1691 to 1695.
He built a three-story mansion on Queen Street (renamed Pearl Street), opposite Pine Street. The de Peyster family employed 16 household servants, including nine slaves, to operate the house and its ample grounds, according to Lamb and Harrison’s 19th century “History of the City of New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress.”
The New York Slavery Records Index, held in the archives of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, lists de Peyster as owning 13 slaves.
The history of the statue is complicated.
One of de Peyster’s descendants, John Watts de Peyster (1821-1907), commissioned the sculpture in 1895. The statue remained in New York’s Bowling Green Park for only two years before John Watts de Peyster decided to move it to the F&M campus.
De Peyster’s association with F&M began when the college’s Diagnothian Literary Society made him an honorary member in 1885. De Peyster then gave the society part of his library. Eventually, he donated $25,000 to the college to build the Watts-de Peyster Library, where Shadek-Fackenthal Library now stands.
He also donated the statue of his ancestor, which stood in front of the library from 1897 until 1936. The college moved the statue to its current location during construction of the new library.
John Watts de Peyster commissioned a second, similar sculpture that eventually wound up in Thomas Paine Park, at Worth and Lafayette streets in New York. Paine (1736-1809) spent a summer writing a revolutionary tract in Lancaster. He supported abolition of slavery.
In 2003, F&M considered moving the college’s de Peyster statue back to the new library. The statue was not moved, according to Christopher Raab, F&M’s associate librarian for archives and special collections, because of projected high costs.
Two years ago, the statue was moved a few feet west along Buchanan Avenue to accommodate the building of the new Winter Arts building.
— Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.