Last month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio put forward a $30 million, 10-year plan to close down the city’s infamous prison facility at Rikers Island, a decision motivated in part by the tragic story of young Kalief Browder. Browder was 16 years old when he was pulled off the street and arrested on a charge of stealing a backpack. He was never tried or convicted on any charge, but he spent three years at Rikers because he couldn’t afford to post bond and his court appearances were repeatedly delayed. The experience was profoundly brutalizing, and two years after his release, Browder took his own life. Browder’s story is a national shame that should hasten Rikers’ demise, but it is also emblematic of the institution’s past even before it was a prison.
Tracing the history of Rikers Island—and the Riker family that gave the prison complex its name—provides a sobering look at how much New York City’s 19th-century slavery past still haunts it today. The Riker name goes back centuries, often showing up at moments when—as in Kalief Browder’s case—black youth were taken from their families in the service of profit.
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Nearly 200 years before Browder was grabbed off the street by police and sent to Rikers Island, another black teenager was traumatized by law enforcement agents who would bring his family before a man named Riker for judgment. In 1829, the 14-year-old Henry Highland Garnet was returning from a stint as a cabin boy—a job that allowed him to add to his family’s meager income. His homecoming would be a devastating one. Henry’s family was gone, his home ransacked by slave catchers. Garnet’s schoolmate Alexander Crummell had watched the slave catchers chase Henry’s father over the rooftops of Leonard Street. The older Garnet had been able to outrun his pursuers, but Henry’s teenage sister was not so lucky.
Slavery had been rendered illegal for New York residents two years earlier, but that hadn’t stopped slave catchers from knocking on the Garnets’ door. These agents roamed the streets of New York for much of the first half of the 19th century, capturing escaped slaves in order to return them to bondage. Sometimes people were returned (for a hefty finder’s fee) to their former enslavers. In other cases, free people were kidnapped and sold down South away from family and friends who could advocate on their behalf.
Slave catchers were often obliged to make a case in court to prove that the black people they had abducted were in fact the “property” of their former enslavers. Many of those unfortunate captives, including Henry Garnet’s young sister, would wind up in court before Richard Riker, who as a city recorder adjudicated many such cases of “stolen property.” Riker’s bias in favor of the abductors was so pronounced that abolitionists considered him an accomplice of the dreaded “Kidnapping Club”—a racket in which profit-hungry slave hunters would steal black people from streets, homes, and even schools, and then rush them through Riker’s court before they could mount a defense. Garnet’s sister ultimately was able to provide an alibi in Riker’s court and return home, though with a shaken sense of safety. Many others were not so lucky.
Although the Garnets were able to regain their freedom, their peace was forever shattered. Garnet’s mother, worrying for her son’s safety, sent him to apprentice for a farmer on Long Island. There, miles away from home, the teenage Garnet suffered an injury so grievous he would eventually have to have his leg amputated, a horrifying prospect in an era without anything approaching effective anesthetic. His life would be forever shaped by that night that led his family to Riker’s courtroom.
Nearly forty years later, the Civil War would generate another round of kidnapped black youth in New York City. This time, black children weren’t stranded in Riker’s courtroom but on Rikers Island. By 1863, the Civil War was in full swing, and Henry Highland Garnet was back in New York City. He was now a famous minister, advocating for the right of black men to serve in the Union Army. But when the decision came down allowing black men to enroll, it would prove a mixed blessing. As soon as officials cleared the way for creating a black New York regiment, greedy “recruiters” got to work grabbing black people off the streets and impressing them into service.
The pre–Civil War practice of stealing black children to collect slaveholder bounties now morphed into the wartime work of abducting black children to collect recruitment bonuses. As one account reports, “mere boys ranging from fourteen to fifteen were kidnapped on their way to or from school.” Using tactics similar to those that slave dealers deployed against Solomon Northup, recruiters gave unsuspecting youths drugged drinks. The teenagers would find themselves stranded on Rikers Island, land originally owned by Abraham Rycken, the great-grandfather of Richard Riker, the man who had sent so many black children into the abyss of slavery a generation earlier. The land remained the property of the Riker family until it was sold to New York City in 1884. As in the cases of stolen children brought before Richard Riker in the 1830s, these Civil War abuses were made possible by the tacit approval of government officers, many of whom profited by their willingness to listen to the white agents over the protests of a black child.
Henry Highland Garnet, who had seen his own sister stolen from his house as a child by rapacious profiteers and brought before Richard Riker, now advocated on behalf of the children stranded on Rikers Island. He took the statements of the conscripts and was, in many cases, able to achieve justice on their behalf. Many of the worst practices were remedied and Rikers Island began to fill with consenting black men eager to join the army in order to end slavery once and for all. Rikers Island served as a training ground until the troops were able to march South, to fight on behalf of a country that still denied them citizenship.
Today, the ground where black teenagers were once held prisoner in an attempt to deploy them as child soldiers lies beneath the Rikers Island prison complex. Ninety percent of that institution’s cages currently hold a person of color. That this history is bookended by the name of Riker is an indicator of the brutal persistence of patterns begun in the days of slavery and reminds us how deeply those practices shape the lives of 21st-century children. Just as we need to tear down old Southern monuments that try to whitewash a painful history, we need to come to terms with how Northern institutions also perpetuate that pain. The history of Rikers Island carries the suppressed memories of a system that moved seamlessly from slavery to abduction and forced conscription, to incarceration in the service of profit. Yes, Rikers needs to go, but we cannot allow its history to be forgotten.