Boston residents will get to vote on changing the name of Dudley Square. Here’s why.

"It's steeped in African-American culture and history — that names have significance.”

A man crosses Malcolm X.Boulevard in Dudley Square.
A man crosses Malcolm X. Boulevard in Dudley Square in 2017. –Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

Boston residents are set to vote this November on renaming Dudley Square.

The Boston City Council unanimously approved a petition Wednesday for a local ballot question on whether the city should change the name of the Roxbury commercial district to Nubian Square after one of the oldest African civilizations. Supporters say the Dudley family, for which the historically black square is named, had a central role in establishing slavery when Massachusetts was first being settled.

City Councilor Kim Janey, whose district includes Roxbury, says it’s important that the community has the opportunity to name itself, noting that there’s a particularly “rich history” of doing so in the African-American community.

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“We see efforts all across our country to address and confront our racist past, whether it’s tearing down monuments or new names for different squares and streets,” Janey told Boston.com in a recent interview. “This is no different.”

Still, exploring the renaming of a square through a ballot question would in many ways be unprecedented for Boston.

While she supported putting the question on the ballot, Janey is neutral on the actual debate over whether Dudley Square’s name should be changed and says she’s more focused on policies and initiatives to eliminate Boston’s glaring racial gaps when it comes to wealth, education, health, and housing.

“But this is important,” Janey said. “It’s steeped in African-American culture and history — that names have significance.”

How would the ballot question actually work?

Under Massachusetts state law, any city or town can place a “nonbinding public opinion advisory question” on the ballot with signatures from 10 registered voters in the community and the approval of the local governing body. For cities, that means the city council and mayor.

During a hearing last month, Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration supported the Dudley Square ballot effort (though, like Janey, the mayor is officially neutral on the question itself). Jerome Smith, the city’s director of civic engagement, said the administration had worked with the Nubian Square Coalition on their initiative for months.

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The coalition had originally wanted to pursue the name change through the city’s Public Improvement Commission (PIC), the same way the Red Sox made the request to change Yawkey Way back to Jersey Street. However, because of “the scale of the name change,” with many local businesses and groups, as well as a bus station, named after Dudley Square, Smith said that Walsh suggested a ballot question instead.

Due to the state law, the question has to be citywide, meaning all Boston residents — not just those living in Roxbury or Dudley Square — will see the question on their ballot. However, Smith said the city will give special attention to the voting results in Roxbury.

“As we look at the polling data, we will be giving a keen eye to the way the wards and precincts of Roxbury decided to vote,” he said.

And while the question is non-binding, Smith said the city is prepared to take the results, should it pass, “as evidence the community does support a name change” and work with the PIC and the Nubian Square Coalition to advance regulations to change the name in the months after the Nov. 5 election.

“Should the question win and a large number of residents support the change to Nubian Square, that will happen this fall into winter, and then the name of the square will be changed,” Smith said.

What’s the issue with the current name?

Massachusetts — then the Massachusetts Bay Colony — was the first colony to legally sanction slavery in 1641.

Nubian Square Coalition members say the Dudley family, which lived in Roxbury, was integral to implementing and maintaining the oppressive institution, which enslaved both Native Americans and Africans. Historians say the number of slaves in Massachusetts rose to more than 2 percent of the state’s population by the mid-18th century, before the abolitionist movement gained momentum and slavery in the state was effectively abolished in the 1780s.

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Chuck Turner, a former city councilor who supports the name change, testified last month that Thomas Dudley — the prominent family’s patriarch, who intermittently served as governor and deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 17 years between his arrival in 1630 and death in 1653 — had such political influence at the time that he was “obviously involved in every aspect of the Puritan political action,” including upholding slavery.

Additionally, Turner said that Dudley’s son, Joseph Dudley, enacted a fine on any free black person who assisted a runaway slave when he was Massachusetts governor in 1707.

Sadiki Kambon, the chairman of the Nubian Square Coalition, said the group feels it was “inappropriate” for Roxbury’s primary commercial district to have a name honoring a family with such a slave “affiliation.”

Why Nubian?

Kambon said there were several reasons the group ultimately chose Nubian Square as its preferred name change.

The name refers back the the ancient Africa civilization of Nubia, which thrived several thousand years ago in the Nile Valley — what is now Egypt and Sudan. According to experts, the Nubian people were known for their pottery and archery skills, conquered and ruled Egypt for a century, and built monuments and pyramids that still stand today.

Alenor Larisa Abdal-Khallaq Williams, whose family owned the Dudley Square store A Nubian Notion, which closed in 2016, suggested Nubian would be an empowering name for local residents of color.

“Why not change Dudley Squae to a name we choose, Nubian, one that reflects a people and race, and no one person?” Williams said during the hearing last month, adding that it “reflects the home of empires, a place known for its business affairs and trades of resources along the Nile, a place known for its rich culture and tradition of diverse languages.”

Kambon says the name also has contemporary symbolism, in the face of encroaching redevelopment and rising rents.

“We want to send a message to the forces of gentrification that we, as black and brown people in our community, intend to fight for the land that we presently reside on,” he said.

During the hearing, supporters pointed out that similar efforts had renamed local landmarks to more accurately reflect the community. The Orange Line station formerly known as Essex Street was renamed Chinatown in 1987. In the 1990s, Roxbury’s Washington Park and New Dudley Street were changed to Malcolm X Park and Malcolm X Boulevard, respectively, after the civil rights activist who once lived in the neighborhood.

Not all Roxbury residents are on board with the change to Nubian Square; opponents say the name has little direct connection to the community and has it own complicated history.

The Bay State Banner, an independent Boston newspaper geared toward African-Americans, has called the Nubian Square effort “misguided.” While they were the victims of slavery, ancient Nubia, also known as the Kingdom of Kush, also utilized and traded slaves. Modern day slavery has persisted in the region through the 21st century, particularly during the second Sudanese civil war, which ended in 2005.

Given the civilization’s own ties to slavery, Alex Mitchell, a Boston University student and Roxbury native, said the Nubian Square effort is “somewhat hypocritical.”

“If we end up changing the name of Dudley Square, which we definitely should, as a city, this is a really, really big opportunity to celebrate someone from Boston — an African-American from Boston who worked for other African-Americans,” Mitchell said during the hearing, throwing out names like Martin Luther King Jr., Elma Lewis, and Bill Russell.

So far, Janey says she’s gotten mixed feedback on the ballot question, from both Nubian Square supporters and those who oppose the name change, such as businesses and others who have built their identities around Dudley Square and are worried about having to rebrand. Then there’s also people like Mitchell who would like to rename Dudley Square, but after an individual that had a more direct impact on the community.

“That’s the point of this,” Janey said. “The point of this is for us to have a discussion around what we should call ourselves and the ability to vote on that through the ballot question in November.”

And even though the question is specifically worded to ask residents if they support changing Dudley Square to Nubian Square, she noted if it’s defeated, the same process is open to anyone who wants to rename the square after something or someone else. All it takes are the signatures of 10 registered voters to get a petition before the city again.

City officials have stressed that it’s the first time they’ve used the advisory ballot question process to potentially facilitate changing a square’s name, which could spur similar efforts in the future — in Dudley Square or elsewhere in the city.

“In some ways, we’re figuring this out as we go,” Janey said.

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