What’s in a name?

The deeper you look, the more problems turn up

BOSTON RED SOX OWNER John Henry says he is “haunted” by the fact that a street that abuts Fenway Park, Yawkey Way, is named after a man many consider to have been racist to the core — one Thomas Yawkey. So Henry is doing his level best to dehaunt himself.

Under Yawkey’s ownership, the Red Sox were the last major league team in baseball to sign a black player (Elijah “Pumpsie” Green) —12 years after Jackie Robinson broke the modern major league color barrier. “Pumpsie Green finished what Jackie Robinson started,” as a Newsday article proclaimed last year.

Yawkey, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980, not only turned down the opportunity to sign Robinson after a tryout, he refused to let Willie Mays, considered by many to be the greatest baseball player to have ever walked the planet, try out.

To right what he sees as a wrong, Henry has petitioned the city of Boston to change the name of Yawkey Way back to its old name — Jersey Street. A decision is slated to be rendered on Thursday by an arcane city agency called the Public Improvement Commission.

Meanwhile, I got to thinking: Who was Jersey Street named after?

“It appears that Jersey Street was named after the isle of Jersey in the English Channel and not after a particular individual,” said a spokesperson for the Boston Public Library, relaying information provided by a research librarian. “It can be assumed that Jersey was named after the earldom on the isle of Jersey.” The Jersey isle is located off the coast of Northern France and is a British possession.

I then wondered whether there was any slavery going on in the Jersey isle in early times.

An article entitled “A Respectable Trade or Against Human Dignity,” by Douglas Ford, published in Heritage Magazine, sheds a little light on the question. 

While Jersey was not deeply involved in the slave trade, it was involved on the periphery — there was too much money to be made from what at the time was regarded as ‘a perfectly respectable trade,’” Ford wrote.

The author gave several examples, including a Jersey-based company named the New Royal African Company, which was founded by Jersey citizen George Carteret and traded for slaves in West Africa and then shipped them off to the West Indies.

On one of the company’s early voyages, Carteret picked up 302 slaves in the port of Offra and transported them to the West Indies. Twenty of the slaves died en route. By the time Cateret returned to Jersey in March 1664, he had sold 155 men, 105 women, and 22 boys into slavery.

Meet the Author
The story of Jersey won’t likely be a factor in whatever decision the Public Improvement Commission reaches, but it illustrates for me how everyone and every place has warts the closer you look. Peter Faneuil, for whom Faneuil Hall is named, was a slave trader.

Mr. Henry, do you still want to rename Yawkey Way Jersey Street?

Colman M. Herman is a free-lance writer from Dorchester.