J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Marketplace of Ideas about Faneuil Hall

Earlier this month, Boston mayor Marty Walsh and the city’s Community Preservation Committee proposed spending projects under the state’s Community Preservation Act, including two focused on Revolutionary sites in downtown Boston:

  • $350,000 to help with major repairs to HVAC and other systems at the Old State House, one of the oldest and most visited sites on the Freedom Trail.
  • $315,000 to restore 17th and 18th century artifacts from beneath Faneuil Hall showing Boston's role in the transAtlantic slave trade, works of local artisans, and an emerging global marketplace.

Though these are relatively small grants on the list, which includes restoring entire buildings, the results would be very visible because of the number of visitors to those sites.

People are presuming that the restored archeological artifacts would be displayed at the city-owned Faneuil Hall as part of or in conjunction with a memorial to slavery, an idea Walsh has also endorsed. Such a memorial would acknowledge how that form of human exploitation was embedded in Boston’s economy for over two centuries. The town dock, which was near Faneuil Hall before landfills, is known to have been one site where slavers sold people.

Last year Steve Locke, one of the city’s artists in residence and a teacher at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, proposed a memorial design. It too would require approval by a specialized board and the city council.

The Boston Globe reported that Locke’s “Auction Block Memorial”
will include two bronze plates embedded in the brick of the plaza, one representing the auctioneer, the other the people being sold into slavery. A map will illustrate the Triangular Trade route of goods and human chattel. The bronze representing slaves will be heated to a constant 98.6 F in order, says Locke’s proposal, to make “touching the work an intimate and reverent experience as if you are touching a living person.”
I think the design might be tweaked to be more closely tied to Boston; it currently illustrates the “Triangular Trade” with a map of one voyage of one Newport ship, and Boston’s trade of cod, firewood, and molasses with the Caribbean seems more pertinent. But the concept of the embedded, heated brass plate is striking.

The merchant who bequeathed Boston the money to build Faneuil Hall, Peter Faneuil, was a slave owner and an investor in slaving voyages. Like all Boston merchants, he participated in an economy that depended on supplying the deadly slave-labor plantations of the West Indies. That has prompted some people to call for Faneuil’s name to be removed from Faneuil Hall.

I don’t think renaming would produce the most powerful statement about slavery. Faneuil Hall is famous in American culture, particularly as a “cradle of liberty” because the building hosted town meetings and other public gatherings, including orations by abolitionists. In contrast, the honor still accruing to Peter Faneuil is very faint.

Showing people that “Faneuil Hall,” a historic landmark they’ve learned to revere, was closely linked to the buying and selling of humans seems like a powerful way to make people recognize the long history of slavery in America. In effect, it would make the famous Faneuil Hall itself in part a memorial to American slavery.

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