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Boston City Council to consider resolution apologizing for city’s role in slave trade

City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson is proposing a resolution apologizing for Boston's role in the transatlantic slave trade.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

The Boston City Council on Wednesday is set to consider issuing a formal apology for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and “the death, misery, and deprivation that this practice caused.”

If approved, a resolution on the council’s agenda this week would see the city “vow to dedicate policies and efforts to repair past and present harm done to Black Americans via systemic racism.” But the measure would not carry any funding for reparation payments, nor would it explicitly commit the city to any specific policies aimed at healing centuries of harm, or even launch a study on the issue.

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City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who is putting forward the resolution, said it was an important that “an apology took place first, before proceeding with the conversation on reparations.”

“You can’t have reconciliation without truth. Boston needs to accept the responsibility it had in the transatlantic slave trade,” she said. “If we can begin with truth, we can begin to work on the detriment, the issues, and how it’s impacted Black people.”

Fernandes Anderson said she is not sure how many of her colleagues will support the measure, but that it’s important to raise such topics and “let people see where [councilors] truly stand.”

The resolution would push the city to educate residents on the history of the slave trade here and create a registry allowing Bostonians to express regret for past injustices. It would also express support for “removing prominent anti-Black symbols in Boston.” While the resolution does not target the name of the building specifically, one such symbol could be Faneuil Hall, named for Peter Faneuil, who the resolution describes as one of the richest slave traders in Boston.

Asked whether the resolution would mean renaming Faneuil Hall, Fernandes Anderson said it would “open up a conversation about the direction for next steps.”

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The resolution comes less than a week before Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of formerly enslaved African Americans after the Civil War, and marks the day in 1865 — two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation — when Union Army troops announced to enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. Last year marked Massachusetts’ first official celebration of the holiday, and it is now a federal holiday as well.

A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu did not return a request for comment on the resolution.

The resolution, a mostly symbolic gesture by the council, stops short of the more robust measures some on the body support.

In February, City Councilor Julia Mejia proposed a commission to study reparations for Black Bostonians, calling for a wide-ranging examination of ongoing harms and inequities. The proposal would have created a 15-member body charged with studying systemic racism and reparations over the course of about two years.

Councilors considered the commission at a hearing in March, raising questions about how much the body would cost and how its membership would be determined. It has yet to come up for a vote.

Though Boston had a prominent abolitionist community in the 19th century, the city was still a player in the transatlantic slave trade. Merchants from Boston traveled to the West Indies, where they sold Indigenous people for enslaved African people and raw materials, or to West Africa, where they sold rum for enslaved people. Almost 200 recorded voyages left Boston between 1638 and 1858, according to the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases.

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Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783. Yet Boston’s connection to slavery endured through the Fugitive Slave Acts, a federal law first passed in 1793 and strengthened in 1850. The law meant freed Black people living in states where slavery was outlawed could be captured and sent back into slavery without due process.

There were a number of high-profile cases in Boston in which activists attempted to free people captured under the law from incarceration in Boston’s courthouse. Some, such as Shadrach Minkins in 1850, were freed and smuggled to Canada. In other cases, abolitionists failed and freed people such as Anthony Burns in 1854 were sent back to the South under heavy guard.

Conversations about reparations are not new in Massachusetts. State Senator Bill Owens, who died this year, advocated for them in the 1980s. Last year, Cambridge asked its residents for feedback on a possible reparations program.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.