With the new school year, Prospect Heights elementary school P.S. 9 Teunis G. Bergen will be renamed the Sarah Smith Garnet School, in honor of the first African-American woman to serve as a New York City public school principal, reports NY The City.
The name change comes after parents voted in February to remove Bergen’s name because of his family’s history as slaveholders. Last Thursday, the Department of Education followed suit and approved the parents’ choice.
Democratic Congressman and historian Teunis G. Bergen was a descendant of an affluent family with Norwegian and Dutch roots. The family settled in New Amsterdam in the 17th century and made their fortune by developing “Breukelen” land –with slave labor.
For a school, where more than 40 percent of students are black, the name change seemed to be only the right move, according to P.S. 9 parent Andrew Case, who spearheaded the initiative.
“This is about ownership of a school name, and the positive change of a school choosing a name for itself,” said Case.
The movement to change the school’s name began after he stumbled upon the Bergens’ slave-owning history. Case discovered an ad in the Long-Island Star placed by Teunis G. Bergen’s uncle in 1819; he searched for an enslaved couple who had fled his estate with their child and offered a reward for their return.
Case initially suggested renaming P.S. 9 after the trailblazing Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm whose district included Prospect Heights. But her family did not consent to the request, which is a DOE requirement for renaming a school.
The school’s teachers took the issue up in their classrooms and encouraged their students to suggest names, said Krystal Linton, the parent-teacher organization co-president. They decided on Garnet, an early suffragist who began her career as an educator at age 14 and came from a successful family that founded the nearby Weeksville Heritage Center.
“Students were thrilled with her background and thought she was someone to look up to,” said Linton. “I think they’re proud to know their voice is valued here, and that they’re part of the solution.”
And with the permission of Garnet’s family, P.9. will carry her name come fall.