Racial justice activists marched Wednesday from Boston City Hall to Faneuil Hall to press city officials to rename the historic marketplace and tourist draw whose namesake’s wealth flowed in part from the transatlantic slave trade.
With the support of a city councilor and momentum from a resolution passed earlier this summer apologizing for Boston’s role in the slave trade, advocates hope that this could be the time where the years-long push to rename the hall reaches a tipping point.
“We should not have the name of a white supremacist attached to a publicly-owned building,” said Kevin C. Peterson, the founder of the New Democracy Coalition, at the start of the protest. “That’s who he was. A white supremacist. A human trafficker.”
Faneuil Hall is named for Peter Faneuil, an 18th-century merchant who made his fortune in an industry built on trafficking enslaved people and trading goods produced by them. Documents show Faneuil owned five slaves at the time of his death and requested that the captain of one of his ships purchase an enslaved boy about 12 to 15 years old.
Faneuil’s connections to slavery have some convinced that his name should be removed from the hall, one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the country.
“It’s a public building,” said Susan Redlich, 76, carrying a handmade sign that read, “Faneuil bought a child.” “There’s just so many other names that are appropriate.”
Wednesday’s protest was not the first Redlich has attended calling for the hall to be renamed. She attended a slave auction reenactment in November 2018 where Peterson and two other advocates stood chained and barefoot before being auctioned off to a slave owner.
Though advocates have rallied for years for city officials to rename the building, demonstrators said this moment feels unique. Peterson told the group that the movement now has the support of the City Council and the mayor to move forward with a hearing.
A hearing would follow the City Council’s June resolution apologizing for Boston’s role in the slave trade. The resolution, which passed unanimously, expressed support for “removing prominent anti-Black symbols in Boston.”
“The name change of Faneuil Hall is part and parcel of the apology,” Peterson said in an earlier interview.
During his speech, Peterson also pointed to a poll released by Policy For Progress in September, which found that a slim majority of Bostonians — 51 percent — supported renaming Faneuil Hall, with 36 percent opposed. Support climbed to 67 percent among Black respondents.
Mayor Michelle Wu’s press office did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Globe about whether she supports moving forward with a hearing on renaming the landmark. “It is critical to acknowledge and address the role of slavery in our nation’s founding and the deep inequities that remain today,” a spokesperson said via e-mail.
City Council President Ed Flynn declined to comment on whether the council supports a hearing.
Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who put forward the apology resolution, said in a statement that it is time for the hall to be renamed.
“There is no reason why, in 2022, a famous tourist attraction and business center in the City of Boston should be named after someone who grew rich by buying and selling enslaved Africans, and even at the time of his death, still owned five human beings,” she said.
There is precedent in Boston for renaming historic landmarks, though the hall would be the most prominent site to be renamed.
In 2018, advocates successfully lobbied Boston’s Public Improvement Commission to rename Yawkey Way outside Fenway Park, whose then-moniker celebrated Tom Yawkey, a former owner of the Red Sox who critics accused of racism; the little-known commission returned the street to its original name, Jersey Street.
Then, in 2019, the city agreed to rename Dudley Square to Nubian Square, after concerns from Roxbury residents about the square’s namesake, Thomas Dudley, who served as a colonial governor in the 1600s when slavery was legally sanctioned. A non-binding referendum on whether the station should be renamed failed city-wide, but the city moved forward with the change after a majority of Roxbury voters supported it.
To Edwin Sumpter, 62, a life-long Boston resident, the question of renaming Faneuil Hall comes down to who is considered to be Bostonian. Sumpter, a Dorchester resident, said the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan are not always considered by residents and politicians to be a part of the city.
“As a result, something like Faneuil Hall, which is named after the slave owner can go on,” he said at the protest.
After gathering at City Hall Plaza, demonstrators sang “change the name, change the name” to the tune of “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child as they walked from the plaza to City Hall. “Change everything about it, we can do without it,” they sang.
Once they reached City Hall, the protestors stood in the lobby of the building and sang “Woke Up This Morning,” a song from the civil rights movement, their harmonies and clapping echoing through the building. They then stood silently at the City Council meeting and marched onward to Faneuil Hall, where demonstrators sat in Quincy Market and listened to speeches from organizers.
Onlookers, many of whom were tourists, were split on whether the hall should be renamed.
Giulia Scognamiglio, 32, who watched the protest over her lunch purchased from a Quincy Market vendor, said she has heard similar calls in her home country, Italy, to rename places associated with fascism and former Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.
“They’re right to protest,” she said. “Times have changed, and a city like Boston shouldn’t be associated with a person who was involved in such things.”
Cathy Yonkers, 78, who sat outside Quincy Market with her husband Edward, 84, when the protest passed by said the protest was “ridiculous.” The two are visiting Boston from their home in Jupiter, Fla.
“We believe in keeping names that are historical,” she said. “We don’t have slavery now. If you change the name, you forget the past.”
Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition rejected arguments that renaming the hall would constitute erasing the past. He said it would instead honor the legacy and humanity of Black people. He said renaming Faneuil Hall is a first, necessary step to addressing racial inequality in the city
“There’s nothing more important in the city of Boston,” he said. “Racism is the city’s original sin, and unless we address it, Black people in the city will continue to suffer.”
Travis Andersen of Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent Bailey Allen contributed to this story.
Kate Selig was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @kate_selig.