The Boston City Council on Wednesday issued a formal apology for the city’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and “the death, misery, and deprivation that this practice caused.”
The council voted unanimously to approve a resolution vowing “to dedicate policies and efforts to repair past and present harm done to Black Americans via systemic racism.” The measure, however, does not carry any funding for reparation payments, nor does it explicitly commit the city to any specific policies aimed at healing centuries of harm, or even launch a study on the issue.
City Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who put forward the resolution, told her colleagues that “when a harm is done, the first step is to acknowledge the harm and apologize.”
“Now is a good time to do so,” she added.
Several other city councilors spoke in favor of the resolution. One, Councilor Frank Baker, expressed some discomfort with the measure, saying “the apologize part is difficult for me,” because he felt far removed from racist wrongs centuries ago.
“But,” he added, “if my words can help your community heal and our community in Boston heal, then I’m ready to sign onto this.”
Then Baker voted for it, as did every other city councilor present.
“Yes!” Fernandes Anderson exclaimed after the vote, rising to applaud along with many others in the chamber.
The resolution, a mostly symbolic gesture by the council, stops short of the more robust measures some on the body support, raising questions about when — and whether — more concrete policy steps might be taken.
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, and proponents could not say on Wednesday when it might happen. Fernandes Anderson said the council has been occupied with other matters, such as the city budget, and wanted to give the reparations commission the attention it is due with further hearings.
“There must be truth before reconciliation,” she said.
Still, advocates hailed the resolution as an important move for a city still marked by a reputation for intolerance.
Kevin Peterson, who heads the advocacy organization The New Democracy Coalition and helped craft the measure, acknowledged that it was “at some level symbolic.” But, he said, “it’s necessary for there to be an apology that begins the process of acknowledging... before we get to issues of policy that might be related to reparations.”
Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, another advocate for reparations in Boston, pointed out that a formal apology is the first step of a 10-point plan laid out by the National African American Reparations Commission.
Peterson said he is confident that the commission will be created soon so long as Mayor Michelle Wu “gets behind the effort in a public way.”
Asked about the resolution, Wu said in a statement that “Boston is revered for our role in this country’s founding, but we must acknowledge and address the dark pieces of that history that too often go untold.”
“As a City, we have a responsibility to condemn Boston’s role in the atrocities of slavery, and the lasting inequities still seen still today,” she added. “We must learn from our past, right wrongs, and build an equitable Boston that works for everyone.”
The council’s vote 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.
Without laying out explicit requirements, the resolution passed Wednesday pushes 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 also expresses support for “removing prominent anti-Black symbols in Boston.”
Advocates in Boston have pushed for years to rename Faneuil Hall, named for Peter Faneuil, whom the resolution describes as one of the richest slave traders in Boston. Fernandes Anderson said Wednesday she believes the building should be renamed, though the resolution does not explicitly call for it.
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.
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.