One day before Boston celebrates the unveiling of a statue dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., two dozen or so demonstrators staged a sit-in Thursday outside Mayor Michelle Wu’s City Hall office, pushing for the city to rename tourism hotspot Faneuil Hall because of its links to the Colonial slave trade.
“The name is an embarrassment,” said the Rev. Kevin Peterson, who spearheaded the action.
Peterson has been pushing for a name change for Faneuil Hall for several years, and said that Wu had not responded in a meaningful way to his group’s correspondence about the issue. He and other demonstrators said they were prepared to be arrested because they were not going to leave the reception area outside the mayor’s fifth floor office.
Wu’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday afternoon. As of 5 p.m., which is the time the mayor’s office closes to the public, the crowd of demonstrators had thinned but some were still in the reception area. A handful said they were willing to stay there overnight.
A few police officers and City Hall security guards stood between the group and the office, which overlooks the very building the demonstrators were protesting over. Some of the protesters wore shirts that read “Change the name. Slave traders’ hall. Boycott Faneuil Hall.” Others draped chains around their necks.
Faneuil Hall is a historic town meeting hall and marketplace named for Peter Faneuil, an 18th-century merchant who became one of Boston’s richest men partly through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The Faneuil Hall Marketplace brings an estimated 20 million visitors each year, according to federal officials, and the spot often lands in top 10 lists for the most visited tourist attractions in the country. But for Thursday’s demonstrators, Faneuil’s name represents a stain on the city’s history. Peterson, who last year chained himself to the building in protest, is hoping to use the conversation about Faneuil Hall to open up a larger dialogue about Boston’s history of racism and segregation.
“Boston is called the cradle of liberty, yet Peter Faneuil represents so much that is ugly about the past,” he said.
Not only does Peterson want Faneuil Hall to be renamed through a public process, he also wants a monument recognizing that it was once home to a slavery auction block. Most of those tourists, he said, are likely oblivious to that reality when taking in the area’s shops and restaurants.
Another demonstrator, Linda Solomon, agreed. Solomon, a retired Boston Public Schools teacher, said most visitors to the historic landmark probably assume its namesake is a man to be celebrated.
“This is one small thing that can chip away at the institutional racism,” said Solomon.
Boston continues to wrestle with systemic racism. Peterson on Thursday referenced a much-cited 2015 statistic that pegged the median net worth of Black households in Greater Boston at $8 compared to nearly $250,000 for white households. The city’s racial reckoning in recent years has included conversations about what to do with public monuments, buildings, or spaces that have racist connotations.
Dudley Square, the heart of Roxbury, was rechristened Nubian Square in 2019, following a five-year campaign that gained momentum amid 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 the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, 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.