Designed by Ada Reso, 30, who is Mx. Waithe’s roommate, and with research by Maria Robles, 33, the stickers, which mimic street signs, feature the names of prominent New Yorkers and provide details on the number of slaves they owned.
So far, the trio has distributed about 1,000 stickers, mostly in Brooklyn, though they hope to expand eventually throughout the five boroughs.
The group’s mission reflects a growing body of scholarship challenging the assumption that New York City, and the North more generally, was an idyllic land of freedom.
“We’ve all been given this education around, ‘Slavery happened in the South, and the North were the good guys,’ when in reality it was happening here,” Ms. Robles said.
Enslaved labor was foundational to New York’s early development and economic growth, said Leslie M. Harris, a professor of history and African-American studies at Northwestern University and author of “In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863.”
For parts of the 17th and 18th centuries, the city was home to the largest urban slave population in mainland North America, Dr. Harris said. At one point, 40 percent of Manhattan households owned slaves, most of them Black women doing domestic work, she explained. The local economy was also heavily dependent on the slave trade: Wall Street banks and New York brokers financed the cotton trade and shipped the crop to New England and British textile mills, according to Jonathan Daniel Wells, a history professor at the University of Michigan.
For enslaved people in the South who escaped to New York, a main stop on the Underground Railroad, permanent freedom was not guaranteed. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, Black people were often kidnapped in New York City — both those who had been born free and those who had escaped bondage — and were sold in the South. The Fugitive Slave Act facilitated the practice, which was chronicled most recently by Dr. Wells in his book “The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War.”