Our racial reckoning must include an honest facing of our history
THERE COMES A time when a city speaks as one and acts as one. The planes originating from Boston on 9/11 brought sorrow and pain to our city and the region; residents came together in an outpouring of public support. Again, with the Marathon bombing, Boston responded with heartwarming civic unity. So, too, should the City of Boston and its elected officials consider the renaming of Faneuil Hall, nicknamed “The Cradle of Liberty” at the time of its construction in 1792.
Many might ask: Why, amid a lethal pandemic, a racial revolution, economic insecurity, and the horrific realization that normal may never be normal again, would the removal of the name Faneuil from a public building be so crucial to Bostonians moving forward as one? It would serve as a rebuke to Boston’s ignominious history on race. It would send a powerful message to people of color in this city, that they matter.
It will not close the economic disparities among races, nor will it desegregate the schools or the numerous neighborhoods that have become gateless gated communities. However, it will signal to our residents, visitors, students, nation, and beyond, that Boston is evolving.
While Boston’s elected officials have been reticent or even fearful of open debate, organizations such as the New Democracy Coalition, civic and religious leaders of all kinds, and even Bostonians who are direct descendants of slaves, have pressed the issue to the point where the world is watching.
In three years, the notion of removing Peter Faneuil’s name from a public building in Boston has gone from ridiculous to plausible.
Mayor Marty Walsh has declined to respond to a 182-day old (and counting) request for a conversation with proponents. As individuals, Boston City Council members have at least, on occasion, engaged in dialogue, albeit sometimes contentious. However, they have failed to execute the most fundamental doctrine of democracy: listening to the people. For nearly three years, ignoring calls for a public hearing on the issue, reflects an absence of political and moral courage.
The council and mayor appear unconcerned that this might be a litmus test in next year’s municipal elections. With an at-large city council race decided by one vote in 2019, and rapid movement, across America and Europe, to discard symbols of slavery, neither the mayor nor City Council should find comfort or refuge in the ambivalence toward the name change that some may have had in the past.
Faneuil, an 18th century Boston merchant, was known for his business acumen. He obtained his wealth from inheritance and his participation in the commodity market. Included in those commodities were human beings. Active in the slave trade until his death in 1742, Faneuil also owned five human beings. His participation and reliance on human trafficking for the financing of Faneuil Hall trumps the misdeeds of Confederates and the ignorance of a professional baseball owner, whose name was recently stripped from a Boston street.
Today, Confederate monuments, symbols of traitors to the United States, are rapidly coming down, with even our military seeking their removal. “There is a difference in the remembrance of history and the reverence of it,” said then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu, of New Orleans, in his 2017 address on the removal of Confederate monuments from public property in his city. His political foresight and courage helped propel a movement throughout the southern states, and consequently, across the United States.
Mayor Walsh similarly used his political capital to change Yawkey Way back to Jersey Street, due to longtime Red Sox owner Thomas Yawkey’s obstinate bigotry. I believe the name should have been changed to Yawkey Foundation Way, recognizing the road to redemption followed by the Yawkey family. That is a road to redemption Peter Faneuil never traveled and never will.
Mayor Walsh has invoked the city Landmarks Commission’s powers to change the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square (another slaving civilization) and direct the removal of a white supremacy statue from Park Square depicting a slave kneeling at the feet of President Abraham Lincoln.
If the mayor intends to right the wrongs of the past, why stop short? It all boils down to consistency vs. hypocrisy. Removing Faneuil’s name has far greater redeemable and societal benefit than having it remain.
It would essentially reinforce the doctrine that “All Bostonians Matter.” Incredibly, Boston’s competent city leaders have not recognized the offense of whitewashing the deeds of Peter Faneuil and continuing to hold his name in reverence.
The Walsh administration’s rhetoric on racial justice does not translate to a willingness to change on this and many other issues. It is unbecoming of a “progressive” city and a “progressive” mayor. The City Council has rendered itself irrelevant on this issue, even while under the leadership of two African American council presidents. It is time for them to assert political and moral leadership, compassion, and reverence for the history we now know to be true.
The window of opportunity for change is now. Faneuil Hall no longer represents who we are as a city. Perhaps a new name, derived from a public hearing would be more reflective of democracy in action. The mayor and the Landmarks Commission are due gratitude for the changes they have made. Tiny steps are good; bigger steps are better.
Barry Lawton is a longtime Dorchester resident.