Renaming Faneuil Hall would not erase history

We always reconsider the past in the light of new perspectives

IN A LOCAL TV news station poll this month, more than 90 percent of viewers opposed renaming Faneuil Hall, an iconic civic edifice in Boston which has been a magnet for tourist and elementary school day-trippers.

Yet, all across the nation, large cities and small municipalities are taking sure-footed measures toward removing or renaming monuments, streets, or roadways that praise our country’s denigrating racial past.

Rightly so, because slavery and the vestiges of Jim Crow segregation continue to stain our democracy and such civic sins as these deserve reaction and repudiation. We must face some sobering facts: Peter Faneuil — for whom Faneuil Hall is named — was a slave trader, a purveyor of human flesh, an international trafficker of people whose lives he left in ruins.

No, not all public spaces should be renamed because of their racist connections. That would be time consuming and redundant. But symbolic gestures such as renaming Faneuil Hall can go a long way toward fostering reconciliation in a city so utterly cut into pieces along the lines of race.

Lamenting the presence of slavery at the nation’s beginning, essayist John J. Chapman once called slavery the “sleeping serpent” that lay coiled up under the table at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The legacy of slavery has also been compared to a ghost that persistently haunts our social realities, our civic practices, and creedal beliefs relating to our ideals of justice, fairness, and equality.

The removal of public monuments across the country in cities such as New Orleans and Baltimore conveys strong civic leadership and concern for reconciliation and restorative justice. Recently, Harvard, Brown and Yale universities made steps towards correcting wayward past attachments to slavery. This week the city of Charlestown, South Carolina, officially “apologized” for being associated with the slave trade.

Looking back at past wrongful deeds serves the purpose of addressing racial ills that plague us. The unique democratic and civic ambitions upon which our nation was founded require constant modification, revising on the bases of new facts, and public correction.

Boston is a great city. Yet, in the case of renaming Faneuil Hall, many of its citizens seemingly block and hinder those seeking reconciliation in our racially tainted time. Boston deserves the reputation as the Athens of America, yet on the matter of renaming Faneuil Hall we defer to ideology and not facts, prevarication and not the preponderance of accumulated evidence, historical fictions, not the stated realities.

At the heart of the matter perhaps lay a triple desire to: (1) fetishize our local and national history, making prized and untouchable idols of the past; (2) make claims to false narratives about the founding of the nation; and (3) assume history as closed, complete, and uncorrectable.

All these positions are problematic and pose as roadblocks to our better future.

In defense of retaining the name of Faneuil Hall, many say we should “not change history.” Here we misunderstand that history is always changing in light of new discovery, which is the product of tireless effort to verify truth claims. Without such an approach, we would have held steadfastly to wrong-headed conceptions of the galaxy when new methods, facts, and revelation compel us all otherwise.

In a similar vein, many reject renaming Faneuil Hall because it would “erase” the history of Peter Faneuil a great Bostonian, a “scion of the French Huguenots… fleeing oppression” themselves. But what about Peter Faneuil’s complicity with the slave trade and ownership of other humans? And what about the long and obscured history of blacks in Boston, which we willingly ignore, suppress and reject? In other words, is the historical narrative of black slaves in Boston as important as the stories of whites in our city? Yes, of course.

The move to rename Faneuil Hall should not be viewed as an attempt to “erase history” or change the past. Logic dictates that this is impossible. But remembering history is possible and necessary should we desire to embrace our democratic birthright.

What we passionately push toward is the importance of receiving our history with sense of fair play and honesty. History, absent the recognition of its painful realities, is a lie.

Clearly, we must lift ourselves from our civic cynicism and racial indifference.

Meet the Author

The ongoing presence of an edifice in Boston named after a man known for his sadistic treatment of other humans stands as a daily rebuke to our best intentions to achieve a more equal civic environment for all.  Anything short of renaming Faneuil Hall should make us all shudder and be ashamed to call our city the “cradle of liberty” where the notions of freedom and justice were birthed.

Kevin C. Peterson is the founder of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization that focuses on civic literacy, civic policy and electoral justice.