Boston grapples with Faneuil Hall, named for a slaveholder

Faneuil Hall, the historic meetinghouse in downtown Boston, is a major draw for tourists, few of whom seem familiar with the colonial merchant it is named for. –AP Photo/Charles Krupa

BOSTON — The national wave of renamings of statues, monuments and parks that recall the days of slavery is lapping at Faneuil Hall, the historic Georgian brick meetinghouse in downtown Boston that is synonymous with revolutionary fervor and among the country’s most visited tourist attractions.

Since the 1740s, rabble-rousers — rebellious colonists, abolitionists and suffragists among them — have met in the building’s Great Hall. Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and John F. Kennedy have all spoken from its stage, and political rallies, debates and civic events still take place within its walls, making Faneuil Hall — pronounced “FAN-yul” — a living monument.

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But its namesake, Peter Faneuil, one of the richest merchants in 18th century New England, was a slave owner. And he traded not only in sugar, molasses and timber, but in humans.

That has drawn the attention of some faith leaders and others who want to remove Faneuil’s name from the iconic landmark.

“Faneuil Hall insults the dignity of blacks and all Americans who believe in the civic dignity of all,” Kevin C. Peterson, founder of a group called the New Democracy Coalition, said in a statement.

Boston proudly reveres its history, but the city also wrestles with long-held perceptions that it is inhospitable to people who aren’t white, a sense reinforced last year when comedian Michael Che called Boston “the most racist city I’ve ever been to.”

Much of that reputation stems from violence that erupted against court-ordered school busing in the 1970s. But it started before then and still persists, in everything from virulent bigotry at its sports stadiums to the city’s gaping income inequality, leaving Boston perpetually asking whether it can ever get past the stain of racism. For a city perceived as one of the nation’s bastions of liberalism, its relationship with issues of race is complex.

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Against this backdrop, the New Democracy Coalition submitted a petition this week to the Boston City Council to start the process of renaming Faneuil Hall, which is owned by the city but operated as a visitor center and historic site by the National Park Service.

Peterson has suggested that Faneuil Hall be renamed for Crispus Attucks, an African-American man who was the first person killed during the Boston Massacre in 1770; he is considered the first casualty of the American Revolution.

Authentic portrait of Peter Faneuil by John Smibert. —Handout

City officials have not said what they intend to do, though Mayor Martin J. Walsh says he does not support changing the name.

“If we were to change the name of Faneuil Hall today, 30 years from now, no one would know why we did it,” the mayor said in a statement to The New York Times.

“Not many people know about the history of that man,” he added. “And over the years, Faneuil Hall has become a place where good things have happened,” he said. He noted that Douglass called for an end to slavery from the hall and that every year, hundreds of people gather in the hall to take their oath of citizenship.

“What we should do instead is figure out a way to acknowledge the history so people understand it,” the mayor concluded. “We can’t erase history, but we can learn from it.”

Tourists visiting Faneuil Hall this week, many of whom were white, were overwhelmingly against changing the name.

“I don’t like to tinker with history,” said Matt Birch, 32, a social media editor who is white and lives in Washington, D.C., and was browsing in a bookshop in the building. “This is our country’s roots and it helped form our national identity.”

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His mother, Nina, 64, a retired accountant, felt the same. “It is what it is because of what it was,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”

Boston has been receptive to other name changes. In April, officials voted to rename Yawkey Way, a street outside Fenway Park; Tom Yawkey was a former Red Sox owner who did not add a black player to his roster until 12 years after Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers.

Historically, Boston is often remembered for its role in seeking to abolish slavery. But the trans-Atlantic slave trade played an integral role in the economy of colonial New England. The first slave ship to reach Boston arrived in 1638, when colonists traded Native Americans who had been captured in battle for enslaved Africans.

Merchants who grew wealthy from the slave trade founded and endowed several Ivy League colleges, some of which have distanced themselves from these legacies in the last 15 years or so. In 2016, Harvard Law School dropped its official seal because it featured the family crest of prominent slaveholders.

In 2015 a ceremony was held in Boston to acknowledge the city’s role in both the harrowing “Middle Passage” of the slave trade and in the abolition of slavery.

That ceremony was held at Faneuil Hall, where Faneuil’s own involvement in slavery was just starting to reach the public consciousness.

About 20 million people visit Faneuil Hall every year, many of them seeking a touchstone of the American Revolution. Many know that patriots met at the hall to organize against British oppression, earning Faneuil Hall the moniker “the cradle of liberty.”

But in a random sample of a dozen visitors this week, no one knew who Faneuil was — or that some of the treasure he spent to build the hall in the 1740s derived from the slave trade.

When told about his past, most said they did not see a reason to remove Faneuil’s name. Erasing it, they said, would be tantamount to wiping away part of history, which, they said, should be remembered, despicable as it was.

“I don’t condone slavery, but this is a historical landmark,” said Angie Musil, 41, who is white and works as an office assistant at an elementary school in Minnesota. She said her family had recently visited Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson. Although Jefferson owned slaves, she said, “they haven’t shut down Monticello.”

But Alex King, 20, a black student visiting with his class from a school outside of Boston, said he thought changing the name seemed like a good idea.

“You can create better harmony in your community, so people aren’t offended or triggered in a certain way,” he said.

Last year, the nation plunged into a debate after a deadly riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, over plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Several cities and towns took down or renamed historic symbols honoring controversial figures — including Boston, which removed its only monument to the Confederacy, a small stone slab put up in 1963 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Jeremy Snow, 46, a white law enforcement officer who was visiting Faneuil Hall from Florida, said he disagreed with this movement to take down historical markers.

“African-Americans were treated so wrong and so badly over the years,” Snow said. “But instead of tearing down our history, we should be making new monuments for new reasons.”

He and his family were also planning to visit Salem, Massachusetts, scene of the 17th-century witch trials, “where again, people were done wrong,” he said.

“It seems like when people are done so wrong, it becomes history,” he said. “We shouldn’t do away with it. We need to learn from it.”