fb-pixel‘We have to make sure that Black people are at the center’: Kyera Singleton on co-curating ‘Slavery in Boston’ at Faneuil Hall - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

‘We have to make sure that Black people are at the center’: Kyera Singleton on co-curating ‘Slavery in Boston’ at Faneuil Hall

Singleton talks about the community outreach that she and the curatorial team did while organizing the show — and the outreach they still plan to do

Kyera Singleton is a co-curator of the "Slavery in Boston" exhibit that's on display at Faneuil Hall in Boston.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The exhibition Slavery in Boston,” which opened last month at Faneuil Hall, tells the city’s history of slavery through objects, documents, and stories. It’s the culmination of five years of research and community outreach, and it’s also a point of controversy: When Mayor Michelle Wu introduced the show, activists protested because of its location in a building named after an enslaver.

The two-story exhibition tells the stories of individual enslaved African and Native American people on the first floor, and provides historical context and information about enslavers in the basement. In 1990 and 2010, when archeologists excavated at Faneuil Hall, they found more than 38,000 artifacts, including pottery and metal tools made by enslaved people. A portion of these findings are on display.

Advertisement



A sugar mold was among the artifacts displayed during an opening ceremony for the city’s new “Slavery in Boston” exhibit at Faneuil Hall on June 16, 2023. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Curators sought community input to shape the show’s narrative, said Joe Bagley, one of the three curators, so they hosted listening sessions with religious leaders, museum groups, and individuals.

Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, helped orchestrate these conversations while Jared Hardesty, a scholar of slavery in New England, focused on historical research. Over the past year, they held five sessions, both virtual and in-person, to understand what Bostonians thought an exhibit on slavery in Boston should look and feel like.

Since it opened, “Slavery in Boston” has been a topic of debate, but rather than be the last word on the subject, curators said they want to encourage a continuing conversation. It’s why they created a digital version of the exhibition to be considered a “living document” and an anonymous feedback form. The exhibition is set to run indefinitely, and Bagley said the curatorial team believes it will stay up “forever.” They’ve also discussed setting up duplicates at local libraries around the city.

Advertisement



The Globe recently spoke with Singleton about the community outreach she and the curatorial team did while organizing the show — and the outreach they still plan to do.

A man read a panel in the “Slavery in Boston" exhibit at Faneuil Hall in Boston last month.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Q. How did you approach the community listening sessions?

A. For our first three sessions, we invited professors, clergy, public historians, and museum professionals from a bunch of different sites across the state. The next two were mostly local community members. It was maybe 65 people; most of them were Black people across the diaspora ranging in age from teenagers to 60 or 70. Many came from Roxbury, others from other parts of the city.

One of the main questions that I had was: What is the legacy of slavery today? For me, that was a big, defining question to bring to the group. We don’t want to always keep history in the 18th century because we know that it really does impact Black and brown communities on a day-to-day basis.

Q. What feedback did you get from community members?

A. People wanted to feel that their histories were recognized. Not just the history of slavery, but their history of protest in the city. They said, “Our history is more than slavery.” And so for me, that was really important to talk about. Also, the history of slavery is not just Black people’s history; it’s American history, and we need to remember that. But when we’re talking about these stories, we have to make sure that Black people are at the center.

Advertisement



Q. How did you decide which objects and documents to include?

A. I wanted to be sure that we highlighted as many enslaved and free Black women as possible so that we could understand the monumental accomplishments they’ve made to the city of Boston. There’s Zipporah Potter Atkins, who became one of the first Black women to own land in the city of Boston. We should talk more about Chloe Spear, who left behind an inventory that provides a glimpse into what Black people collected in their homes. We also couldn’t have a timeline that didn’t highlight the Mothers for Adequate Welfare or the League of Women for Community Service.

Q. In the exhibition, enslaved people are represented through silhouettes. Can you talk about this curatorial decision?

A. The silhouettes are there to mark the fact that we do not have these depictions. We don’t often have photographic evidence. We don’t have paintings because Black people weren’t deemed worthy of painting. So how do we represent Black people? It’s not enough to say, “Oh, we don’t have it, so don’t include it.” The silhouette was a way to represent the fact that both free and enslaved Black people were literally being cut out of that kind of memory, that visual representation.

Q. This exhibition is the result of five years of work. How does it feel for you to walk through it?

A. For me, what’s great is to see that people are stopping and engaging with it. I think it’s really important for people to walk into Faneuil Hall and have to contend with slavery.

Advertisement



The "Slavery in Boston" exhibit is on display at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Q. Why Faneuil Hall?

A. Faneuil Hall is typically known as the “Cradle of Liberty.” But how could that possibly be when we know that Peter Faneuil built his wealth from buying and selling enslaved people, and the money he amassed from the slave trade was used to construct this very building? This exhibit challenges the mythology surrounding Faneuil Hall. You cannot walk through the building without knowing who Peter Faneuil was or what he did, and that’s really powerful. But more importantly, you’ll know the names of the Black and brown people who were enslaved to build that wealth.

Q. Can you explain the decision to create an online version?

A. The great thing about the virtual exhibit is that we can make changes in real time. We can add stories or flesh out details if people want to know more about different things. The goal is for it to be a living exhibit. We want people to know that we’re hearing them, and that we’re taking their questions and concerns seriously.

Interview was edited and condensed.

SLAVERY IN BOSTON

At Faneuil Hall. Free. 11 a.m.-5 p.m., boston.gov


Nicole Kagan can be reached at nicole.kagan@globe.com. Follow her @nicolekagan_.