What’s in a sign? And who gets to have public spaces — government rooms, pieces of infrastructure, squares, roads, bridges — named after them? Post-George Floyd, those conversations are unfolding across the country. Boston is no different.
There’s, of course, the well-publicized push to rename Faneuil Hall, the historic town meeting hall and marketplace named for Peter Faneuil, a Colonial merchant who became one of Boston’s richest men partly through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Dudley Square, the heart of Roxbury, was rechristened Nubian Square in 2019, following a five-year campaign that gained momentum in the midst of a national conversation about whether to remove Confederate statues and the names of former enslavers from prominent buildings.
Many supporters of the name change say that as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Governor Thomas Dudley perpetuated slavery. By the mid-1700s, nearly one in 10 people in Colonial Boston were enslaved, although historians say it’s not clear that Dudley himself was an enslaver, and his role in the promotion of slavery is somewhat murky.
In 2020, city officials voted to take down a controversial statue in the Back Bay depicting Abraham Lincoln standing over a half-dressed, kneeling formerly enslaved man.
But those controversies involve names tied to centuries past. Faneuil was an 18th-century merchant. Dudley’s governorship predated the founding of the country by more than a century. The Lincoln statue, known as “The Emancipation Group,” dates back to 1879. (One notable exception was renaming Yawkey Way, which bore the name of the late Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, said by some to be a racist, to Jersey Street in 2018. Yawkey died in 1976.)
The local reckoning has so far spared more recent figures like City Councilors James M. “Jimmy” Kelly and Albert L. “Dapper” O’Neil, white, Irish, and socially conservative relics of bygone eras in Boston politics who were known to embrace bigoted rhetoric and policies. (Both died in 2007.)
Jamarhl Crawford hopes to change that. Crawford, a community activist who worked in City Hall for a year during the late 1990s, says he was present to hear Kelly and O’Neil use the n-word inside the council chambers. Crawford is currently heading an effort to strip names of sites that memorialize men like Kelly and O’Neil in the city, lobbying members of the City Council to take a stand on the matter.
While Kelly has his bridge in Southie, O’Neil has an eighth-floor City Hall hearing room that bears his name.
“They were dinosaurs,” said Crawford recently. “They were Archie Bunker in the flesh.”
O’Neil’s history of public prejudice is a lengthy one. In 1972, after three nights of rioting following the Puerto Rican Day Festival in Boston’s South End, he wanted police to club “those maggots and leaches out of the park,” referencing the city’s Spanish-speaking community, according to Globe coverage from the time.
He was also known to use homophobic slurs during his lengthy political career, which was also marked by accusations of misogyny. In 1995, one female city employee alleged she was harassed 10 times by O’Neil. In the late 1990s, O’Neil said he supported the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.
Kelly’s public life, too, is littered with instances that would be politically untenable in the Boston of 2022.
In 1989, he lamented what he called “the instability of the Black family,” and Black people’s “total dependence on government.” He once asserted that Black politicians and the city’s Black communities condoned crime and violence that would not be tolerated in South Boston, then an enclave of the white working class. He opposed desegregation efforts throughout his adult life, which included resistance to court-ordered busing, yes, but also a consent decree that led to the desegregation of the Old Colony and Mary Ellen McCormack housing developments in Southie in the late 1980s.
Attempts to reach Kelly’s relatives were not successful. O’Neil had no children.
Brian Wallace, a former state representative, South Boston native, and de facto historian of the neighborhood, said the naming of the bridge was symbolic in that it connected Boston’s South End with Southie, two communities that Kelly represented during his time as a politician.
“It meant a lot to Jimmy, and it meant a lot to us,” he said. Kelly was a “damn good representative of the people” and a “stand-up guy.”
He thought the move to rename the structure was grounded in Kelly’s opposition to the court-ordered desegregation of the city’s schools in the 1970s. The effort to rename the bridge would never happen if Kelly was still alive, he added. “They wouldn’t have the guts.”
He added, “People in Southie are really, really pissed at this. They know what kind of guy Jimmy was.”
He pointed out that Joe Moakley, a deceased South Boston pol who has a park and courthouse named after him, also opposed busing in the 1970s, and Wallace rhetorically asked whether Moakley’s name should also be removed from the places bearing it.
“This is getting ridiculous,” he said.
Charles Yancey, who tangled with both Kelly and O’Neil during his long career on the City Council, has plenty of problematic anecdotes from both men.
There was the time in 1992 when O’Neil compared a stretch of Dorchester Avenue to Saigon because of all the Vietnamese businesses there and suggested that people in the neighborhood subsisted on government welfare. Yancey thought O’Neil should have resigned after that episode.
While O’Neil practically lived in the hearing room that now bears his name, often camping out there during zoning hearings, Yancey thinks his bigotry should mean his name doesn’t adorn the room.
“Did he deserve it? No, his racist attitudes should have disqualified him,” said Yancey.
Yancey is a little more circumspect when it comes to Kelly, saying the South Boston councilor always treated his family with respect and demonstrated respect for Yancey himself “90 percent of the time.” He acknowledged that Kelly manifested racist ideology but Yancey said he still respected him as a human being, adding that he dislikes speaking ill of the dead.
Still, of the bridge bearing Kelly’s name, Yancey acknowledged: “Looking at it objectively, no, I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
For Michael Curry, a Boston-based member of the NAACP’s national board of directors, dialogue about the names of places should be part of the process of “figuring out what city we want to be.”
He acknowledged that many controversial pols are beloved by the communities they represented, that their unacceptable sides are often “mixed with delivering resources and services.”
Nonetheless, he said, “it’s worth having a conversation whether those same people are the ones we want to” name public spaces after.
Jeremiah Manion of Globe staff contributed to this report.
This story has been revised from its initial version.