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Adrian Walker

‘Slave auction’ doesn’t change my view of the Faneuil Hall name change debate

Faneuil Hall Charles Krupa/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

If you spend any time around Faneuil Hall, you know that people in costume reenact history there on a daily basis. But little of that history is as raw as the faux slave auction that took place last weekend.

Three activists standing in as enslaved people were “sold” as a crowd looked on, the Globe reported.

The auction — which was a part of a larger protest that day — represented the escalation of a yearlong effort to strip Faneuil Hall of the name of its namesake, Peter Faneuil, a Colonial-era slave trader who donated the building to the city in 1740. Organizers had previously held a sit-in, and called for a boycott of Faneuil Hall, though there has never been much evidence that anyone was boycotting much. Their actions have garnered media attention, but little, if any, movement toward changing the name.


The organizers have been most frustrated by the cold shoulder they have received from City Hall. Their calls on Mayor Martin J. Walsh to hold a hearing on a name change have been rebuffed. The City Council could hold a hearing, but so far no councilor has been willing to file an order for one. City officials want this bad idea to go away.

“I would like the community to understand that slavery was a reality in Boston, and I would like the community to connect the fact that what happened in the 1740s, in terms of the denigration of black people, continues into 2018,” Kevin Peterson, executive director of the New Democracy Coalition that cosponsored the protest, told the Globe on Saturday.

Peterson told me last summer that he believed the renaming would be an effective way to jump-start a badly needed conversation about racial inequity in Boston.

Of course, I support a conversation about race in Boston — it’s what I’ve been promoting in this column for nearly 20 years. But it has never been clear to me why that conversation starts with renaming Faneuil Hall, or how that even promotes such a discussion. And I believe I have a lot of company in my skepticism. Even the Bay State Banner — a reliable gauge of black community opinion — recently came out against the renaming idea.


There is, of course, an argument to be made for the renaming. Like all of New England, Boston has a historical connection to slavery that has never been reckoned with. Though Massachusetts was among the first states to outlaw slavery, it did exist here. And Faneuil was not alone among the merchant class of his day in profiting from the evil of trading in human flesh. I firmly believe that history needs to be addressed.

But I also believe there are other ways to do this. Boston is a city that celebrates its history — but only some of its history. Revolutionary-era Boston was home to free African-Americans who performed heroically in helping to win America’s freedom — Crispus Attucks being the best known of them. I would much rather witness a reenactment of that heroism than the event that went down on Saturday.

I missed the slave auction quite deliberately. The thought of seeing the nadir of human misery — my ancestors’ misery — reduced to a political strategy didn’t sit well with me. I understand that making people uncomfortable was the point, but I don’t need to see a grade-school production of a slave auction to grasp its horror.


The fact is, Boston is having conversations about race every day — they just aren’t about Peter Faneuil. They are, rather, about public safety and body cameras, education and the ever-increasing whiteness of Boston Latin School, income inequality and gentrification.

The big question now is how to move past conversations to addressing these issues in front of us. Renaming Faneuil Hall will not save us. Only a rededication to justice in the here and now can accomplish that.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Or follow him on Twitter @adrian_walker