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Dudley Square: at the intersection of Colonial history, African heritage

A welcome to Nubian Square sign was placed on the Dudley Square Plaza fence in support of the name change.
A welcome to Nubian Square sign was placed on the Dudley Square Plaza fence in support of the name change.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Governor Thomas Dudley has been dead for 366 years, and the cofounder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony has never gotten much press. In Dudley Square in Roxbury, a long stone’s throw from the governor’s grave, few people know anything about him.

He sailed to Massachusetts with the original Puritans, signed the charter for Harvard College, served four terms as governor, and was one of the original settlers of both Cambridge and Roxbury.

Today, Dudley’s presence is mostly consigned to the busy square and its crowded bus station. But amid a national movement to address the country’s legacy of slavery, even that seems poised to change.

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A city committee is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to change the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square, a title with grand African echoes that has broad support among the neighborhood’s large black community.

If approved by the Public Improvement Commission, the reference to Dudley Square will be stricken from the city’s street register, swept aside like the long-ago streetcars and elevated trolley that helped make the square a major transportation hub.

Renaming it Nubian Square hearkens back to the glories of an ancient African civilization that vied with Egypt’s mighty pharoahs for influence. The Nubians built pyramids, brought feared warriors to the battlefield, and produced spectacular art that is now the subject of a Museum of Fine Arts exhibit.

A slight majority of Boston voters rejected the name change on the Nov. 5 ballot, but the measure passed by a 2-1 ratio in the precincts near Dudley Square.

Now, after a five-year effort spearheaded by Sadiki Kambon and the Nubian Square Coalition, the question is in the hands of the Public Improvement Commission, which last year approved the change of Yawkey Way to Jersey Street.

“The name brings energy to the African community here,” said Vesper Gibbs Barnes, who has practiced law in the neighborhood for 20 years. “There is a certain amount of strength associated with it, and there’s a wellspring of people who will feel more positive.”

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The name also is a “recognition of the contributions of black people to Roxbury and Boston as a whole,” Barnes said.

But there’s another impetus driving the renaming effort, and that’s been a desire to erase Dudley’s name because of his purported ties to slavery. Just as Confederate statues have been removed because they honored men who fought for the right to preserve slavery. Dudley’s alleged connection to human bondage has fueled the drive to adopt a different name.

Larry Higginbottom, the founder of a mental-health provider in the square, is adamant that Dudley needs to go.

Nubian Square, by contrast, “is connected back to our African heritage, the motherland. It’s needed to replace the name of a slaveholder who benefited off our people,” said Higginbottom, chief executive of the family-oriented Osiris Group.

But such accusations against Dudley, repeated often in the name-change debate, are difficult to prove. Is it possible he owned slaves? Absolutely, said historian Robert Allison of Suffolk University.

“I would be surprised if he didn’t have bonded people who worked for him,” said Allison, whose expertise includes early Boston history.

Can it be proven? No, according to Byron Rushing, president of the Roxbury Historical Society and a former state representative.

“I’ve really searched, and I’ve found no evidence that Dudley ever owned slaves,” Rushing said.

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What is known is that Governor Dudley signed the Body of Liberties, a legal code presented to him by the General Court in 1641, which is used as evidence that Dudley sanctioned slavery in the fledgling colony.

However, Rushing said, the laws that he signed actually prohibited slavery, allowing for only a few exceptions, including keeping prisoners of war in bondage.

What also is known is that despite this prohibition-with-exceptions approach, Africans already had been brought to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in bondage, the first arriving in 1638 aboard the ship Desire.

Still, Allison said, “it would probably be too much simply to blame it on Dudley and to say it would not have happened otherwise.”

But it happened, and by the mid-18th century nearly one in 10 people walking the streets of colonial Boston were slaves, mostly house servants and other domestic workers for the upwardly mobile. In addition, the town’s merchants had amassed fortunes by provisioning West Indies plantations and trafficking slaves within the Americas.

“Those who built the wealth got nothing out of the deal,” Higginbottom said. “The name change is not so much about Africa, but the hypocrisy that America is built on. ‘All men are created equal’ is a lie that’s been there from the beginning.”

To City Councilor Kim Janey, who lives minutes from the square and supports the new name, the change is more about bolstering an area that has more black-owned businesses than ever.

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“It’s really powerful to have had a process in which residents could determine for themselves what they wanted to be called,” Janey said. “But there’s got to be a strategy beyond a name. There has to be an economic strategy.”

Janey said she is focusing her energy “on changing the conditions of Dudley Square, not just the name. For me, I need to make sure Dudley Square is a commercial success.”

“What we need is a place where we can live, work, play,” Janey said. “We need to show up in a different kind of way. We showed up on Nov. 5 and voted, and now we need to show up and vote with our dollars.”

Whatever the result of Thursday’s vote, the Dudley name will linger elsewhere. Dudley Street stretches from Roxbury to Dorchester. The bus depot is still called Dudley Station. Pizza and subs can be ordered at the Dudley Square Grille.

Rushing, among others, cautioned against rewriting history at the expense of forgetting its lessons.

“I don’t see any reason to change the name. I just don’t think we should put down or rewrite the white history of Roxbury in order for us to do this,” said Rushing, who is black. “The biggest problem that black people have with history is white people lying about it. I don’t think we should ever get into lying about their history.”

For Barnes, however, the change to Nubian Square can be a catalyst for new discussion.

“It brings focus. It opens up a whole conversation we can have about what African-Americans did and what they have contributed,” Barnes said. “Now, we’re actually thinking about it. Before, we weren’t.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.