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Editorial

A missed opportunity to mark Boston’s shameful role in slavery

For now, Boston won’t be getting a memorial to enslaved black people auctioned at Faneuil Hall centuries ago, a missed opportunity for a city that has struggled to reckon with its tortured racist history.
For now, Boston won’t be getting a memorial to enslaved black people auctioned at Faneuil Hall centuries ago, a missed opportunity for a city that has struggled to reckon with its tortured racist history.(Charles Krupa/AP/file)

For now, Boston won’t be getting a memorial to enslaved black people auctioned at Faneuil Hall centuries ago, a missed opportunity for a city that has struggled to reckon with its tortured racist history.

Artist Steve Locke recently cancelled plans for his art installation at one of the city’s most famous sites after the local NAACP voiced its opposition to his proposal, which had already received $150,000 from the city. Locke also raised more than $45,000 through his Kickstarter page. Unwilling to pit city officials against its most prominent civil rights organization, he withdrew a proposal he hoped would illuminate one of this city’s most shameful — and least discussed — chapters.

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What Locke imagined was a ground-level installation called “Auction Block Memorial at Faneuil Hall: A Site Dedicated to Those Enslaved Africans and African-Americans Whose Kidnapping and Sale Here Took Place and Whose Labor and Trafficking Through the Triangular Trade Financed the Building of Faneuil Hall.”

It was designed to evoke a auction block embedded in the surrounding brick. A small bronze plate would represent an auctioneer; a larger one commemorated those sold into slavery, and featured a map of the Triangular Trade, which transported enslaved people, goods, and cash crops between West Africa, the Caribbean, and American colonies.

Locke also wanted that larger plate heated to 98.6 degrees — the typical temperature of a human body.

It would have been a moving public monument. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh endorsed the project, telling the Globe that Locke’s proposal was “thoughtful and an important telling of a history that must have more visibility.”

Locke said he was perplexed by the NAACP’s objections.

“I’m a black artist making a memorial about enslaved black people to honor their sacrifice,” he told the Globe. “And yet they oppose that.”

Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan said her organization is not opposed to Locke’s project, but to a decision process that used public funds while excluding the public from sufficient engagement on such a sensitive topic.

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“As an organization, we do believe that there should be a memorial that honors our enslaved ancestors, and acknowledges the very real role that white Bostonians in particular played in enabling the slave trade to exist and thrive,” she said. “From a financing standpoint, [Boston] played a critical role in that, and that is a part of our history that needs to be told and it needs to be acknowledged.

“My hope is that we grab hold of this moment to have that conversation and decide as a community how we want to memorialize it,” Sullivan added. “It’s important as a city, neighborhood to neighborhood, that the black community as a whole, especially those whose ancestors were enslaved in this country, lead in that conversation.”

In 1742, Peter Faneuil gave to the city the landmark building that bears his name. He made much of his fortune through trafficking of black men, women, and children.

Just as the name of Tom Yawkey, the former Boston Red Sox owner and a racist, was removed from a Boston street near Fenway Park, and the name of slave owner Edward Devotion expunged from a Brookline public school, there’s been a push, especially by the nonprofit New Democracy Coalition, to remove Faneuil’s name from the grand hall.

Walsh has always opposed that step, and perhaps believed Locke’s project would preserve the name of one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and also expose the truth behind the man, and what happened on those grounds. Now visitors will continue to learn nothing about the role of the city or Faneuil in perpetuating an ungodly institution whose repercussions still shake this nation to the core.

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In the end, the only winner in this unfortunate debacle is Peter Faneuil.