At Faneuil Hall, a move to recognize ties to slavery
The cream-colored sugar mold measures 24 inches from top to bottom, a cone-shaped shard of centuries-old ceramic found with 44 others in an archeological dig beneath Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston.
To modern eyes, it looks like a broken piece of pottery. But this simple mold was packed by slaves, with sugar gathered by slaves, as part of a booming maritime trade in slaves and goods that made Boston one of the wealthiest Colonial ports in North America.
“Sugar is the thing that makes the entire trans-Atlantic economy work at that time. And it’s produced with slave labor,” said Robert Allison, a professor of American history at Suffolk University.
At a time when historical connections to slavery — from Confederate statues and university buildings to Faneuil Hall itself — have spurred calls to rename or demolish monuments across the country, Boston officials and the National Park Service are partnering to better educate the public about the outsize role that slavery played in the city’s nascent economy.
Pending City Council approval, which is expected soon, Boston will use $315,000 from its community preservation fund for a display of archeological artifacts at Faneuil Hall that will highlight the city’s early maritime history and its links to domestic slavery and the slave trade.
“This will open a window into that conversation,” said Sarah Kiley Schoff, president of the Friends of Boston Archeology, which pushed for the display.
Under the plan, two exhibits at Faneuil Hall — one on the first level and another near the Great Hall — will display some of 33,000 artifacts from the 17th and 18th centuries that were uncovered during archeological digs at the red-brick building in 1991 and 2010. The timing is uncertain, but some officials said the first items might be on display by summer.
The displays have yet to be chosen, but they might feature a “whizzer,” a kind of 18th-century toy fashioned for young Thomas Apthorp from a flattened musket ball. His father, Charles Apthorp, was a slave trader and one of Boston’s richest men, local archeologists said.
Other potential exhibits include 17th-century ceramics imported from northern Italy, part of a chamber pot, and a mug from Nottingham, England.
“This application was just hugely appealing for all of us,” said Christine Poff, director of the city’s Community Preservation Committee, which endorsed the project. “We can’t erase history, but we can certainly learn from it.”
At one exhibit, the public will be able to watch staff and volunteers with the city’s archeology lab as they clean and catalog the treasure trove of Faneuil Hall artifacts that now are stored in more than 100 boxes at a climate-controlled site beside the Charles River in West Roxbury.
“Stories can be told in these tiny fragments,” said Sarah Keklak, the lab manager. “They don't have to be extravagant to be amazing.”
Many New Englanders have only a hazy knowledge of the dark side of the Triangle Trade, whose immense profits helped build the hall that Boston merchant and slaveholder Peter Faneuil gave to the city as a meeting space and marketplace.
“Written records are very heavily biased toward those with means and have status,” said Eric Hanson Plass, the lead National Park Service ranger at Faneuil Hall, built by Faneuil in 1742.
Boston ships carried rum and other goods to West Africa, slaves from there to the Caribbean, and sugar and molasses from the islands back to Boston, where the molasses was distilled into rum to start the cycle again.
“You can’t have trade without enslavement in this time period, and you can’t talk about it without talking about people being enslaved in the West Indies and here in Boston,” said Jocelyn Gould, a Park Service ranger.
Faneuil had dispatched a ship, the Jolly Batchelor, to pick up African slaves in Guinea before he died in 1743. His funeral was the first public event held in the hall that bears his name, said Allison, the Suffolk University professor.
A group of Boston activists, the New Democracy Coalition, said Mayor Martin J. Walsh has not responded directly to their requests to rename the iconic landmark, which also served as a major venue for anti-slavery meetings before the Civil War.
A spokeswoman for the mayor said he supports the planned display and its attention to the slave trade.
Kevin Peterson, executive director of the coalition, welcomed Walsh’s backing for the display.
“We believe the mayor of Boston is making good-faith efforts at following a path taken by other mayors across the nation who consider monuments celebrating slavery as reprehensible and disrespectful of the presence and contribution of African-Americans,” he said in a statement.
However, Peterson said his group will continue to push for changing Faneuil Hall’s name. Recently, about 10 coalition members interrupted the City Council to demand a hearing be held.
Walsh has opposed a name change, and Allison said such a move would obscure the lessons of the past.
“History is brutal, history is bloody, and history is tragedy,” Allison said. “And if we forget that, we then imagine that there is no brutality in life.”
About 10 percent of Boston’s population in the 1740s consisted of people of color, and the vast majority of them were slaves, Allison said. Unlike slave labor at Southern plantations, most slaves in the region were used as household servants and treated by the wealthy as status symbols.
In South Carolina, by contrast, the majority of the total population was enslaved, Allison said. In Virginia, the figure was about 40 percent. By the 1750s and 1760s in Boston, amid challenging economic times, the number of Bostonians of color had dropped to 5 percent.
In any event, Allison said, “slavery doesn’t sit here in isolation. It is part of this empire-wide dynamic.”
Marita Rivero, president of the Museum of African American History, located in Boston and Nantucket, said the Faneuil Hall exhibit will be a step toward understanding the nation’s full history, which has traditionally celebrated the achievements of the powerful.
“Everyone was complicit in this,” Rivero said about slavery’s role in the American narrative. “It’s difficult to get your head around how ingrained this was. Let’s look with fresh eyes and reimagine ourselves in a way that makes us whole.”