RIKERS ISLAND — The head of the Harlem Historical Society wants Rikers Island renamed based on the namesake family's connection to slavery.
The embattled jail complex, which has been beset with scandal over poor treatment of inmates and calls to shut it down, gets its name from the family of Abraham Rycken, a Dutch immigrant who settled in New York in the 1600s, according to the New York Historical Society.
Jacob Morris, director of the Harlem Historical Society, recently started a petition to rename the embattled jail complex due to family member Richard Riker's history of helping send blacks into slavery during the 19th century.
Riker presided over the main criminal court in New York City, the Court of Special Sessions, in the early 1800s, and he used his authority in this position to send blacks to slavery as part of what abolitionists called the Kidnapping Club, according to historian Eric Foner.
"In accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act, members of the club would bring a black person before Riker, who would quickly issue a certificate of removal before the accused had a chance to bring witnesses to testify that he was actually free," Foner wrote in his book "Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad."
Foner cites multiple instances of Riker's eagerness to uphold slavery, including an 1836 case where he ruled that Abraham Goslee was a slave despite multiple witnesses who said they knew him in the city before he had supposedly escaped and an affidavit from the clerk of Maryland's Somerset County Court affirming that he was a free man.
Morris said he had been aware of this history for years but only started circulating the petition about five weeks ago because he thought people would be more receptive to the idea now.
He pointed to factors ranging from the movie "12 Years a Slave" to last month's suicide of former Rikers' prisoner Kalief Browder as reasons that Americans might be willing to take a closer look at the name Rikers Island than they had been before.
"The consciousness of our society has really been increased about these egregious wrongs from the past," he said.
The petition currently has 11 supporters, but Morris said he was not concerned about the fairly small number of signatures he has received so far.
"It’s more the power of the idea than the number of people," he said. "I don’t need a lot of people."
A Department of Correction spokesman said that renaming Rikers Island was not their agency's decision.
In an email, Foner described himself as "somewhat ambivalent" about changing the name of the island.
"If people want to change the name as a statement about acknowledging New York City's historical relationship to slavery, I would certainly not object," he said. "On the other hand, I'm not sure this would be the same as movements going on right now to change schools and other sites named for Nathan B. Forrest, John C. Calhoun and others directly involved in slavery."
Morris was much more passionate, referring to Riker as "the spider at the center of the web" who helped New York bring blacks into slavery. He said he was disgusted that the man's name now lives on at the city's notorious jail.
"It’s nauseating. There’s nothing redeeming, socially redeeming, about Richard Riker," he said.