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A Reckoning for Brooklyn’s Philip Livingston: Slaver, Trader, and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on June 25, 2020

Attributed to Thomas McIlworth, Philip Livingston, circa 1764; M1974.72.1, Brooklyn Historical Society

We are witnessing a moment of reckoning sweeping across the globe. The simultaneous power and fragility of historical narrative is being exposed as communities reject public monuments erected by past generations. Sculptures of Confederate generals, of Christopher Columbus, of American presidents including Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt are being scrutinized, the “great deeds” they memorialize weighed against the histories of racial oppression and violence they ignore. What do we do however when an individual’s mark on the landscape cannot be so easily torn down?

I have contemplated this question time and again while researching BHS’s portrait collections. Many date from the 1700s and 1800s when slavery was legal and widespread in Brooklyn, and many of the individuals staring out at us from the canvas benefited materially from the “peculiar institution.” The man in this portrait is Philip Livingston (1716-1778). Born in Albany, Livingston moved to New York City in the 1730s where he became a successful merchant, a founder of Columbia College (then called King’s College), and a prominent public figure. In 1776, he was one of four New Yorkers to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the only one from Brooklyn. Less commonly discussed is Livingston’s deep ties to the American slave trade.

Philip Livingston’s ad for an African man who self-emancipated ran in New York City newspapers, including the New-York Mercury and New-York Gazette, in November 1752.

As Columbia University’s project Columbia University & Slavery has revealed, throughout the eighteenth century the Livingston family invested heavily in mercantile voyages between Africa, the Caribbean, and North America that moved trade goods, including sugar, tobacco, and enslaved bodies. Philip Livingston invested in at least fifteen separate slaving voyages, bringing hundreds of enslaved Africans to New York City, including potentially the “Negro Man, lately imported from Africa” that he advertised as a run away in November 1752. Livingston died suddenly in 1778, following the start of the Revolutionary War. During his final years, Livingston’s enslaved laborers may have sought their freedom in enemy-occupied Manhattan, where the British offered freedom to any black Americans willing to aid them in stamping down the American “rebellion.”

In Brooklyn today, Livingston’s legacy lives on not in a sculpture or monument, but on the borough’s map. Livingston Street runs through Downtown Brooklyn from Flatbush Avenue to Clinton Street. In Boerum Hill, P.S. 261 shares Livingston’s name. All across Brooklyn today, streets, neighborhoods, and parks are still named after Brooklyn’s prominent slaveholding families. As the Black Lives Matter movement brings America’s unresolved history of racial oppression and systemic racism once again to center stage in public debates, how do we begin to tackle the mark of slavery in our own neighborhoods, on our own streets?

To learn more about the history of slavery in Brooklyn, check out the educational curriculum from BHS’s In Pursuit of Freedom project here. Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward to inviting you back to BHS in the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, you can use our Remote Research Guide to get started. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

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