While Boston prominently advertises its revolutionary and abolitionist history, the city’s role as a slave port is rarely remarked upon; but it was to mark that ignominy that hundreds gathered in Faneuil Hall on Sunday.
The ceremony marked the first International Day of Remembrance of the Middle Passage and its Abolition. About 500,000 enslaved Africans, a quarter of whom were children, were transported to the Colonies and later the United States, many chained below-decks for the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, called the Middle Passage.
“We need to celebrate our abolitionist history,” said Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History. “And you know, in Boston people think slavery happened somewhere else, but it started here.”
Slaves were first recorded in Boston in 1638. The city functioned as a Middle Passage port city, into which slaves were delivered and sold.
“The descendants of Africa were the economic engine of this country,” Morgan-Welch said to the assembled crowd.
She added later that the biggest issue with acknowledging Boston’s history on the topic is that “it is a story so violent, so despicable, so horrific, and so quintessentially American.” It suffers from the paradox of a liberal city engaged in a reprehensible business, and as a result, the story is often ignored entirely in favor of an abolitionist narrative.
Speeches and prayers were interspersed with the sound of crashing waves, referencing the ocean passage in the historic great hall. Some participants were clad in bright African garb and played a series of drums and chimes.
That the ceremony took place in Faneuil Hall was not without irony, pointed out Superintendent Michael Creasey with the National Park Service, as Peter Faneuil benefited from family participation in the slave trade.
Speaking at the ceremony were representatives of several faith communities and government groups. All addressed the historical legacy of slavery directly and without euphemism.
“It was part of the fabric of late Colonial life of Boston,” Creasey said, referencing a description of slave-owning Bostonians who asserted they would rather be burned in their beds than give up their slaves.
“We are not able to erase the past,” said minister Olivia Dubose.
But they can face it as a multiracial, multigenerational, and multireligious community, speakers said. The realities of the trade were ugly, as the life of a northern slave was one of toil in factories and homes, being forced to lay down their freedom for their masters’ freedom to attend college and build magnificent homes, Morgan-Welch said.
“This is an issue for us as human beings,” said Ann Chinn, the founder of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project. She said having conversations about New England slavery was opening the door to reclaiming a truer narrative of their histories.
“Our ancestors are our angels, our saints, and they’ve been waiting to fill this role,” she said.
Speakers pointed out that while the Northeast does boast a strong abolitionist leadership, such as Frederick Douglass, captive Africans utilized escapes, petitions, military service, social action, and organized protests to resist slavery.
In 1832, the New England Antislavery Society was formed by a free black community in the African Meeting House on Beacon Hill, growing into a national movement.
Following a court case in 1783, in which an American slave sued for his freedom, a Massachusetts Supreme Court justice determined that “the idea of slavery is inconsistent with our own conduct and [the Commonwealth’s] Constitution.” The decision abolished slavery in the state.
Late in the ceremony, libations were offered for those who lost their lives on the voyages; those who made the migration willingly, only to be enslaved; and the young black residents of the country who are persecuted for their skin color, said Anthony Menelik Van Der Meer. After each libation, those assembled chorused a prayer and “black lives still matter.”
The event closed as it opened: a boisterous drum line through the clapping and dancing audience.
Representative Byron Rushing said it is vital to have regular places and times to talk about slavery or the slave trade.
Slavery in the United States, he said, lasted 246 years. It will not be until 2111 that people of African descent will have been free in the country as long as they were enslaved, he said. He said Bostonians, particularly those of African descent, need the chance to recall an inconvenient history long shunted to the side.
“Everybody here knows that there were abolitionists, but they don’t have a clue what they were trying to abolish,” he said.
Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.