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Slavery exhibit at Faneuil Hall opens amid protest

Protesters speak outside of Faneuil Hall ahead of the new slavery exhibit opening
Protesters speak outside of Faneuil Hall ahead of the new slavery exhibit opening.(Sonel Cutler/Globe Correspondent)

Mayor Michelle Wu on Friday opened the city’s most ambitious exhibit ever on the history of slavery in Boston, but more than a dozen protesters decried its location in Faneuil Hall, an 18th-century landmark named for a slave trader.

“We do not object to this exhibit being placed at another site,” said the Reverend Kevin Peterson, who led protesters from the New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based activist group. “But we respectfully insist that Mayor Wu remove these artifacts from a place named after a white supremacist. History tells us that Peter Faneuil was a bigot. His name should not adorn a publicly owned building.”

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Wu did not specifically address the group’s demands for a name change, but in remarks to more than 100 people outside Faneuil Hall and later to reporters, she called the exhibit an important reckoning with the legacy of slavery in Colonial Boston.

“This exhibit lays a crucial foundation for Boston to address our legacy of enslavement and support the healing process for our descendant communities,” Wu told the crowd. “Our administration is committed to confronting these histories.”

Wu shook hands with protesters after listening to them for several minutes before the exhibit’s opening ceremony.

“As a city, we have to address the legacy that the way in which our city’s economy, and so much of that, was built on the trans-Atlantic trade,” Wu said to one person.

In May, Peterson and other activists delivered a petition with more than 3,000 signatures to change the name of Faneuil Hall, which attracts 2 million visitors a year. On Friday, protesters wore shirts describing the building as Slave Trader’s Hall. One sign read, “If You Love Liberty, Change the Name.”

The exhibit, five years in the making, tells the stories of individual enslaved people in pre-Revolutionary Boston on the busy first floor, and introduces visitors to enslavers through displays in the basement. Artifacts produced by enslaved people and recovered during relatively recent archeological work at Faneuil Hall also are displayed.

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“As we continue our work to combat racial and economic inequity, it is essential to address our past in ways that create space to process grief, uplift resilience, and repair the harm,” said the Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, the city’s chief of environment, energy and open space.

“Today and every day moving forward, we must lift up the unheralded layers of Boston’s history and memorialize the enslaved people who contributed to the building of our city,” White-Hammond said.

The protesters, however, said that placing the exhibit in a space named for Faneuil, an immensely wealthy merchant who profited from slave labor in the Caribbean and also from slave trafficking, is an insult to Black Bostonians. Faneuil also owned at least five enslaved people.

“Mayor Wu is expressing an insensitivity to the suffering that Blacks experienced while enslaved in Boston,” Peterson said.

Dolores Christopher, 72, of the New Democracy Coalition, said she does not want to bring her grandchildren to the exhibit. Christopher said that depicting Black enslaved people in a building named after a man whose wealth was built off slavery is demoralizing.

“We need to move on from here,” Christopher said. “We don’t need to be reminded. We don’t need history to be repeated.”

Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, another protester, criticized the exhibit as being “less about us being free, and more about us being slaves.”

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“We should not be spending our dollars on exhibits that perpetuate our trauma,” she said. “This exhibit sets us back and traumatizes us all.”

However, Kyera Singleton, co-curator of the exhibit, said Faneuil Hall is an appropriate site largely because of its namesake’s legacy.

“It forces people to contend with the fact that enslaved women, men, and children were integral to the building of Boston,” said Singleton, who also is executive director of the historic Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, a Colonial estate that held the largest number of slaves in Massachusetts. “It really does put Peter Faneuil in context as a slave trader and an enslaver. It’s no longer about the building just being the Cradle of Liberty.”

In addition, she said, visitors to Faneuil Hall had not been forced to contend with slavery before, “and now they have to, and to me that’s really important.”

Joseph Bagley, the city archeologist and lead planner for the exhibit, said more than 200 community members provided input and suggestions for the exhibit, which is scheduled to run indefinitely.

“We asked, ‘What do you want this to look like? What do you want to feel at the end of it?’ ” Bagley said. “I’m proud of how many people were included.”

White-Hammond said the exhibit is only one step in what is hoped to be a long, ongoing conversation.

“There is so much more that we need to do and will do,” White-Hammond said. “We no longer want to view Boston’s history in silos.”

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And for Colonial enslavers such as Faneuil, she added, “We hope we can complicate their stories.” Those stories, White-Hammond said, “should be heard in the spaces where people are.”



Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Sonel Cutler can be reached at sonel.cutler@globe.com. Follow her @cutler_sonel.