City voters could weigh in this fall on whether to rename Dudley Square, one of Boston’s most historic black neighborhoods, after local proponents of the change argued it is named for an enabler of the region’s slave trade.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration and City Councilor Kim Janey, who represents Roxbury, said Wednesday that they support putting a non-binding question on the November ballot to change the name to Nubian Square, after a region that hosted one of the earliest civiliations in Africa.
Janey urged her colleagues to support putting the proposal on the ballot, saying, “People should have the ability to name themselves and define themselves.”
But she took no direct position on the name change, saying her focus has been on tangible improvements to the area, which is one of the city’s poorest. “I have been focused on changing the condition. Even if we change the name tomorrow, we still have a wealth gap,” she said.
The council and administration must make a final decision by Sept. 18 whether to have the question placed on the November ballot.
Jerome Smith, the city’s chief of engagement, said the administration began working with the grass-roots effort to rename the square last year, around the same time that the Red Sox had proposed renaming Yawkey Way to Jersey Street, because of the late owner Tom Yawkey’s reputation for racism. The Nubian Square Coalition proposed following the same process through the city’s Public Improvement Commission, which oversees public ways.
Smith said, though, that the administration recognized that changing the name of an entire square has far greater implications than changing a street name, and so the administration proposed putting the question before voters.
“This should be something organically discussed with the residents of Roxbury, and they should give their feedback,” Smith said. “We want them to be successful in having the conversation.”
If it’s approved for the ballot, the administration would look at the results as a community “poll” that could shape how the city proceeds, Smith said. He added that while the question would be on the city ballot, the administration agreed to focus on answers from Roxbury-based precincts.
“You’re getting feedback from the community,” Smith said. “That way you can slice and dice the data and use it as you see fit.”
Dudley Square is named for Thomas Dudley, who served as governor of what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600s. Supporters of the name change say Dudley oversaw the passage of laws that allowed for slavery and his descendants enabled the slave trade.
The proposal to name the area Nubian Square has been floated for several years but failed to gain much traction.
Under city law, the Nubian Square Coalition gathered 10 voter signatures to petition the council and the administration to approve the placement of the question on the ballot. (Without approval of the council and the administration, coalition members would need 10 percent of registered voters, or 40,000, to put the question on the ballot.)
“Why not change Dudley to a name we choose, Nubian, one that reflects a people and race, and no one person?” said Alenor Larisa Abdal-Khallaq Williams, a Roxbury resident whose family founded A Nubian Notion Inc., an Afro-centric gift store that had a location in Dudley Square for more than 50 years.
Sadiki Kambon, chair of the Nubian Square Coalition and one of the original proponents, also urged councilors to let voters decide. He said the proposal falls in line with similar efforts across the city and the country to rename plaques, monuments, and other public infrastructure that had initially been named after supporters of the slave trade. He noted that Washington Park in Roxbury was renamed Malcolm X Park.
More recently, efforts to rename Faneuil Hall because of Peter Faneuil’s legacy as a slave owner ran into controvery, and an artist who had planned a memorial at the site to mark the history of slavery pulled out of the plan.
But Alex Mitchell, a Boston University student whose family is rooted in Roxbury, called on councilors to oppose the name change to Nubian, calling it hypocritical. Empires in the region, in between Sudan and Egypt, have their own history of slavery, including in modern times. More recently, the Darfur genocide occured in Sudan.
While he supports changing the name from Dudley, Mitchell called on councilors to rename the square in honor of someone from Boston who supported the black community here.
“What has Sudan, what has Africa done for the African community in the US?” he said. “If we name it Nubian Square, we miss an opportunity to honor Boston.”