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The push to rename Faneuil Hall: What to know about the debate

Efforts to give the historic hall a new name go back three years.

In this Aug. 21, 2017, photo, pedestrians walk past Faneuil Hall in Boston. Charles Krupa / AP, File

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As the nation faces heated calls for racial justice and a push to topple systemic racism, here in Boston a years-long grassroots effort to rename Faneuil Hall from its slave-owning namesake has generated some new steam of its own.

The New Democracy Coalition, the group seeking to rename the historic tourist destination, has taken new actions to get the attention of city officials, particularly Mayor Marty Walsh, for the chance to plead its reasons why such a makeover is needed.

Since the death of George Floyd, the Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis, spurred nationwide protests in May, the coalition has been outspoken on the prospect outside City Hall and the hall in question, and its founder, Kevin Peterson, went on a week-long “hunger fast” in an attempt to have Walsh schedule a public hearing on the matter.


Peter Faneuil’s legacy, as both a slaver and slave owner, is emblematic of white supremacy, Peterson said in a Facebook video Sunday.

“We are rebuking the spirit of white supremacy, so we call Mayor Walsh again to the table to address the issue of white supremacy in this city by addressing the issue of renaming Faneuil Hall,” he said. “We cannot feel comfortable or at ease as citizens in this nation and in this city when the name of a slave owner sits up atop a public building.”

Walsh, who has indicated recently that there may be a conversation to be had, has personally remained opposed to the renaming, often citing how decades from now Bostonians would not know why the change was made.

“Not many people know about the history of that man,” Walsh said, referring to Faneuil, in 2018. “And over the years, Faneuil Hall has become a place where good things have happened: historic speeches such as Frederick Douglass’ call for the end to slavery, the signing of forward thinking legislation like the (Massachusetts) Affordable Care Act, and where hundreds of people take their oath of citizenship every year.”

Here’s what to know about the debate:

Who was Peter Faneuil?

Faneuil was one of the wealthiest merchants in Boston during the 18th century.


The son of French Huguenots who settled in New York, Faneuil, after his parents died, moved to Boston to live with his uncle, Andrew.

Faneuil, who partially gained his money through a large inheritance from his uncle, traded tobacco, fish, rum, produce, molasses, and slaves, according to the National Park Service.

The famed businessman also owned slaves himself. An appraisal of the inventory of his estate after his death shows Faneuil enslaved five people.

According to the Park Service, one example of Faneuil’s slave trading business is a voyage of his ship, the “Jolly Batchelor,” to Guinea in 1742 — the same year Faneuil built the hall that bears his name.

When the ship returned the next year, Faneuil had already died, but records show the vessel brought with it 20 slaves in its cargo, the agency says.

“Though Peter Faneuil lived a short life, his keen eye for business made him a successful merchant, which in turn gave him the finances to donate Faneuil Hall to Boston,” the Park Service says on its website. “There is some irony to be found in its nickname however, because a portion of the money used to fund ‘The Cradle of Liberty’ came directly from the profits of the slave trade.”

What advocates supporting the name change say

Peterson has led the charge for a name change for over three years.


The effort kicked off in the spring of 2017, with activists seeking to build off the national momentum that ultimately led to the removal of Confederate memorials in cities nationwide.

In a letter to Walsh in 2018, the minister and activist wrote that, “For African-Americans in Boston, Faneuil Hall stands as an affront to their civic sensibilities.”

He urged officials that they must do more than mention Faneuil’s slavery ties on a website, and must “move toward racial healing.”

“We don’t need words, we need actions,” he wrote.

Over the prior year, Peterson tried to get Walsh’s attention through press conferences, letters, and visits to City Hall and made the case to replace Faneuil’s name with that of Crispus Attucks, a former slave who was shot and killed along with four other men by British redcoats, not far from the hall, in the Boston Massacre in 1770.

Attucks, whose body was brought to Faneuil Hall where it laid for three days, is considered to be the first casualty in the war for American independence.

“We believe it’s altogether fitting to idolize Crispus Attucks near the site where he gave his life on behalf of the founding of the country,” Peterson told Boston.com in 2018.

Peterson, that year, started calling for a boycott of the famed hall and neighboring Quincy Market.

In June 2018, the coalition also petitioned the City Council to consider the name change.

Still, Peterson and the coalition have continued their calls in the years since, especially after Floyd’s death ignited fervor over racial inequality and longstanding systemic racism across the country.


The activists brought their message to City Hall Plaza last month at a “speak out” rally to draw attention to the push for  renaming while also emphasizing larger, prevalent racial issues.

There, Dr. Jill Stein, the two-time Green Party presidential candidate and a former Green-Rainbow Party gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, said she also backed the push for a new name.

Peterson, last week, started a hunger fast he said he would continue until Walsh gave “an immediate date” for city hearings on renaming the hall.

“No one — no race or creed in this city would allow a ‘Hitler Hall’ to exist in this city,” Peterson said. “No racial group or leader would allow a ‘Mussolini Hall’ to exist in this city. Why are Blacks in the city being demeaned to such an extent that we have the name of a white supremacist on the building that’s publicly owned?”

Peterson also issued a set of demands, including for the City of Boston to apologize for slavery and the harm it inflicted.

In a Facebook post Sunday, Peterson indicated he was completing the fast after seven days “in frustration” Walsh had not met with him, but would continue to urge officials to take action.

“We call on good will from our public and elected leadership to address the issue of systemic and structural racism in this city by addressing the issue first of renaming Faneuil Hall,” he said. “We would like to have a hearing in this hall so that people from all across the city … can come to the table of dialogue, repentance, and reparation and reconciliation.


“Only then will we be able to address the systemic inequality in policy and unevenness in this city,” he added.

The coalition is slated to co-host a virtual town hall event Thursday night “to discuss Faneuil Hall, race relations, reconciliation and look to strategies for repair and civic renewal.”

What Mayor Walsh says

Walsh has maintained that he is not in favor of renaming the historic property.

In 2018, the mayor suggested that the city should instead “figure out a way to acknowledge the history so people understand it.”

“We can’t erase history, but we can learn from it,” he said.

At the time, Walsh had backed a project to build a memorial for victims of the slave trade at Faneuil Hall. Slave auctions were once common along Merchants Row.

But the plans fell through after the artist behind the monument pulled out last year when the Boston branch of the NAACP voiced opposition.

Walsh was asked about the prospect of renaming the hall again on June 10 — the day a North End statue of Christopher Columbus was found decapitated.

The mayor said he had not talked about a name change until that point, but added he is aware of the history surrounding the property, including the “very bad” chapter of the country’s history and the property’s prevalence in the nation’s growth.

“At this point, I have not engaged in any conversations and certainty everything is on the table to have conversations about,” Walsh said.

But Walsh has since reaffirmed he personally remains opposed to renaming the hall.


Asked about Peterson’s hunger fast on June 25, the mayor said a public hearing would fall under the City Council’s jurisdiction.

“I think that if we change the name of Faneuil Hall, 30 years from now we’d forget what happened there,” Walsh added. “And I think there’s certain parts of our history we should use and learn from, and so I’m not in support of changing the name of Faneuil Hall.”

The next day, Peterson and Walsh sounded off in a tense exchange on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” when the activist called into Walsh’s monthly appearance.

“Peter Faneuil was a white supremacist, someone who owned slaves, someone who willed his slaves to his sister after he died,” Peterson told the mayor. “It is exceedingly clear that we should not have racist symbols reflected in our public institutions, our public buildings, which Faneuil Hall is one of.”

Walsh, who said he has known Peterson for a long time, appeared to take issue with comments made against him through a New Democracy Coalition press release on June 5.

“You say you are committed to real change so please shut up and listen,” Peterson said in the release. “You say you want to make Boston a leader around race, so please shut up and listen.”

Walsh responded with a suggestion for Peterson: “(I) ask you when you do a press statement in the future, you don’t call me stupid. You don’t tell me to shut up. And you don’t call me a racist.


“And I think that that’s a very hard conversation to have when you’re coming from that standpoint and you’ve known me for a long time,” Walsh added. “You know I’m not a racist, you know where my heart is, and you know that there’s opportunities of conversation. And I just — that’s how I’ll respond.”

Peterson, in a statement released following his call-in to the show, said he never called the mayor “racist” or “stupid.”

A review by Boston.com of an archive of press releases published by Peterson dating to July 2019 shows he did not call Walsh those words.

Peterson, speaking in the video posted on Facebook Sunday, demanded a public apology from Walsh.

“What you do to a citizen when you make accusations like that is poor leadership, and I demand an apology,” he said. “I’d like to move on and have discussions with you, Mayor Walsh, about having a hearing that leads to a discussion around systemic racism.”

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Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


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