More than a year after renewed calls to rename one of Boston’s most famous landmarks, the issue has proven to be a political hot potato for candidates in the upcoming municipal election.
For years, protesters have called on the city to rename Faneuil Hall, a historic market and boardroom that traditionally attracts around 20 million annual visitors, as its namesake profited from African property and commerce.
Former mayor Marty Walsh declared his opposition to the idea before stepping down last spring, despite national awareness of racist monuments and symbols.
Although the name change effort dates back at least four years, renewed interest has followed the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by Minneapolis police last summer.
Local activist Kevin Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition, a grassroots civic organization, is planning another protest to draw attention to the issue.
“I’ll be back on a hunger fast at Faneuil Hall, maybe next week,” he said in an email Tuesday.
More than 2,600 signatures in favor of the name change of Faneuil Hall were collected on the Change.org site.
The issue, however, remains controversial in Boston, with few of the top five mayoral candidates – all of whom are people of color – ready to respond to their stance on the issue.
This includes acting mayor Kim Janey, who did not respond to requests for comment about his support for Faneuil Hall’s name change. Janey, the city’s first black person to become mayor after Walsh resigned to join President Joe Biden’s cabinet, tried to rebrand Boston as diverse and ‘all-inclusive’ in a $ 2.5 million marketing campaign to boost post-COVID tourism.
But renaming a building built by and named in honor of Peter Faneuil, a wealthy 18th-century merchant and slave merchant, to a “Cradle of Freedom” is something Bostonians have been doing for over 200 years.
Thousands of summer visitors walked through the building originally completed in 1742 on Friday, browsing t-shirts, postcards and other memorabilia celebrating Boston’s revolutionary history.
Other than a sign in a larger display in the second-floor boardroom, they encountered little about the slavery connection that made the structure possible. Faneuil Hall is owned by the city and is operated by the National Park Service.
The other two black mayoral candidates, City Councilor Andrea Campbell and former economic development chief John Barros, also did not respond to requests for comment on Faneuil Hall.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is Asian American, has already called for more to be done to showcase the city’s diverse history. For example, she moderated a roundtable on monuments and fairness in 2017. However, she did not approve of a name change when asked about the monument’s namesake.
“We have a long way to go to address our city’s past and dismantle systemic racism in all its forms,” Wu said in a statement. “In addition to a full conversation about Boston’s monuments, memorials and place names, we need concrete action to eliminate the racial disparities that have persisted for too long.”
During her three terms, city councilor Annissa Essaibi George called for better representation of women and women of color in the designation of public art, places and monuments. Nonetheless, Essaibi George, who identifies as Arab-American, has not made any commitment in one way or another to renaming Faneuil Hall, although she has declared herself open to a conversation about it. .
“I recognize that the struggle to rename Faneuil Hall is not just about changing the name – it’s about recognizing the systemic racism and inequalities that exist in our city,” she said in a statement.
Boston has struggled to shake its identity, deserved or not, as a racist city. New census data released this week revealed the city continues to lose its black population, which has fallen 3.3 percentage points over the past decade.
In some other large cities, the desire to rename monuments linked to white supremacy was welcomed by elected officials. Eric Adams, the alleged next mayor of New York City, has been outspoken about replacing controversial monuments.
Opponents of the name change argue that the Faneuil Hall brand has become something close to a living monument of freedom for younger generations, despite its less than desirable origin. After all, it has hosted countless speakers, from abolitionists to human rights defenders, who have fought for greater equality.
Still others see a connection between national identity and public spaces, which have long commemorated and prioritized the stories of a select group of people, some of whom have backgrounds seen as problematic in today’s world.
In a 2002 scientific article published in The New England Quarterly, historian Jonathan Beagle of Western New England University wrote that Peter Faneuil’s involvement in slavery was controversial even in the early 19th century in Boston, when his antecedents were often rekindled in debates about race and ethnicity.
He quoted abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who, in an 1852 speech to the Massachusetts Anit-Slavery Society in the boardroom, said: “Peter Faneuil’s ancestors were themselves fugitives from an edict almost as cruel as the law on fugitive slaves … A Huguenot built this room, which had no right to live on the soil of this beautiful France, and one can naturally suppose that he dedicated it to the most ultra, exterior idea of freedom.
A preliminary race for mayor to reduce the field from seven candidates to two contenders is scheduled for Tuesday, September 14. The general election is set for Tuesday, November 2, making it almost certain that voters will elect a person of color to lead the city for the first time.
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