Faneuil Hall name change needed

A debate over slavery issue is overdue

IN LIGHT OF the lynching of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprising, we call on the city of Boston to engage in the ongoing conversation, initiated by Kevin Peterson and the New Democracy Coalition more than a year ago, about changing the name of Faneuil Hall. Indeed, this would be consistent with the decision of Boston to remove the copy of the memorial,  “The Emancipation Group,”  which depicts a standing Lincoln and kneeling black man gazing up at him.

If the statue of a figure as revered as Lincoln is being removed, how can we retain the name of Peter Faneuil, a local merchant who became one of the wealthiest men in the colonies buying and selling human beings. Although most of us are aware of the Atlantic slave trade originating in Africa, historian Jared Hardesty has documented that Faneuil’s ship, The Jolly Bachelor, was involved in trafficking enslaved people throughout the West Indies and into New England. This smaller scale, inter-American slaving, Hardesty argues, was the primary way Bostonians participated in the slave trade. Indeed, as a successful merchant, Faneuil also extended credit to other New Englanders engaged in the slave trade and was, as such, a financier of white supremacy.

Does having paid for the building warrant retaining the name in perpetuity, when doing so maintains a place of honor and respect? We might well ask whether Faneuil actually paid for the building or whether it was purchased by the lives and freedom of those he transported and sold.

Some argue that Faneuil Hall, whatever its origins story, has ironically become known as the cradle of liberty, a historic site whose name has become associated with abolitionists and suffragists who spoke there. In removing the name of Faneuil, so this argument goes, history is being erased. We would counter that by retaining the name of Faneuil, we in Boston do a great disservice to history by concealing his true past. Many visitors to Boston and many Bostonians have no idea that Faneuil was a slave trader.

A name change is in keeping with national developments in the Black Lives Matter movement. For example, the University of North Carolina will rename four historic campus buildings named for avowed white supremacist men. The Washington, DC, football team has abandoned its racist name and logo after decades of intransigence. The Cleveland Indians have announced a process to study their team name. And there are many other examples.

We call upon the city to engage in an expansive community process to decide two issues in sequence – first, whether or not the hall should be renamed and, second, if so, what name should replace Faneuil. We believe that a robust public discussion will be a critical part of our reckoning whether or not the conclusion is to change the name. As far as we are concerned, heated conversation, debate, and argument are just as important as any particular outcome. Faneuil Hall could be renamed for a significant black actor in history – Frederick Douglass, Lewis Hayden, David Walker, or Crispus Attucks.

The name could pay homage to the collective efforts of many unknown and unheralded. We could follow the example of other cities. In Philadelphia, the building in which both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed is known quite simply as Independence Hall based on its history. We could choose to rename our own site as Freedom Hall or Abolition Hall based on its role in abolition and suffrage.

Whether or not the process leads to a name change for the venue, we call for the city to join with the National Park Service to do much more to present the history of Peter Faneuil and, more broadly, of slavery in colonial New England. In recounting this history, it will be important to include that colonists enslaved and subjugated many indigenous people.

The ground floor of Faneuil Hall is home to a National Park Service visitor center and also many retail shops. The city of Boston owns Faneuil Hall and has a formal agreement with the Park Service to play a significant role in the hall. The city could decide not to renew several of those commercial leases and thus free up space for an interpretive exhibit created in collaboration with the Park Service and community input.

If the hall is renamed, we would argue that this new exhibit should include details about how the name change came about, which would necessitate inclusion of the lynching of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprising. We anticipate that many thousands of visitors would view such an exhibit once the pandemic no longer endangers large visitation. It is important to note that combating racism and white supremacy involves multiple fronts from rethinking how our critical institutions are identified to advancing the economic status of black people and other people of color.  To that end, we call for much more diverse ownership of the many shops in adjacent Quincy Market.

Meet the Author

Marty Blatt

Affiliate professor of public history, Northeastern University
Meet the Author

David J. Harris

Managing director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice Harvard Law School
We have many difficult discussions and decisions ahead of us as we reckon with our past. We believe the city can and must include a public and open debate about the name of this landmark as part of that reckoning.

Marty Blatt is an affiliate professor of public history at Northeastern University and David J. Harris is managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.