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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Monday, July 22, 2019

Update on the Slave Auction Memorial at Faneuil Hall

Earlier this month I wrote about the Slave Auction Block memorial that artist Steve Locke had proposed for installation outside Faneuil Hall.

Locke’s Kickstarter campaign was successful in surpassing its goal for initial fundraising with a couple of days still left to go. However, last week Locke announced, “I am afraid that I am not going to be able to go on as proposed with the Auction Block Memorial being placed at Faneuil Hall.” The Boston branch of the N.A.A.C.P. had come out against the project, prompting Mayor Marty Walsh’s office to pull back support until all constituencies support it.

Early in the month Kevin C. Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition of Massachusetts editorialized against the memorial, declaring (without evidence) that it was a project of Mayor Walsh, not Locke. In 2017 that organization advocated for changing the name of Faneuil Hall because it still bears the name of donor Peter Faneuil, a slave owner and trader. Last year it reenacted an auction of enslaved people outside the building to call attention to that history.

That protest action left me confused about Peterson’s first objection this year to Locke’s memorial:
Walsh’s memorial to the enslaved has been proposed for the grounds at Faneuil Hall, but no historical record of “slaves for sale” exist on the site. This raises critical questions about the relevance of the memorial on the ground of the internationally known ediface.
If reenacting a slave auction at Faneuil Hall helps to raise awareness of its link to the slave trade, then a permanent memorial should logically do the same.

Furthermore, there’s solid documentation for slave sales in that part of Boston. On 27 Nov 1727 the Boston Gazette ran an advertisement stating:
ON Thursday the 30 Currant will be Sold by Publick Vendue, at the Sun Tavern on Dock Square at Five a Clock P. M. For likely Negros, and Sundry sort of Merchandize, all to be seen at the Place of Sale from two of the Clock till the Sale begins.
Seven years later the town opened a “market-house at Dock Square.” Many citizens feared that centralized marketplaces like this would allow sellers to manipulate prices, and in 1737 a mob disguised as clergymen tore down the structure. The map of the area above dates from 1738.

Peter Faneuil offered to pay for a replacement market building, sweetening the offer with a large upper-story hall for town meetings. The new building was finished in 1742 and named after Faneuil the next year when he died. Even now, the north side of Faneuil Hall is called Dock Square.

The Faneuil Hall neighborhood continued to see occasional sales of people, as shown in the 7 Aug 1758 Boston Gazette:
To Be Sold
At Major Deshon’s Vendue-Room in Dock-Square.
Sundry very likely, healthy, young NEGROES,
some of the likeliest of the late imported Cargo,
and all that remains unsold: The Sale to begin at Eleven o’Clock in the Forenoon.
A different sort of marketplace was announced nearby in the 5 Aug 1771 Boston Gazette:
The Intelligence-Office is removed from the Store opposite to the Golden Ball to a Store on the South Side of the Town-Dock, just above the Swing-Bridge, where it is now kept by
Grant Webster,
Who has for Sale, West-India and New-England Rum, Madeira and other Wines, Flour, Rice, Indigo, &c. Vessels of several Sorts, several good Farms, Male and Female Negroes, new and second hand Chaises, two convenient Houses near the Center of the Town, and sundry other Articles cheap for Cash. …
As an “intelligence office,” Webster was functioning like Craig’s List or the want ads. He didn’t actually have all that property in his office, but he could connect buyers and sellers.

Peterson’s second objection was that Locke had developed the memorial “with little public involvement from the greater Boston community.” That surprised me. Locke was Boston’s artist-in-residence when he conceived of the design. I read about his proposed design last year. He assembled an advisory board that included prominent officials from local universities, museums, and government. Kickstarter itself is a form of public involvement.

The New Democracy Coalition editorial treats the memorial as “an apparent political response to protesters pushing for the Faneuil Hall name change” which “does little to adding to the deep conversation on race that the city needs to undertake.” For Locke, of course, the purpose of the public artwork was to prompt just that sort of conversation and reflection. I think for that purpose it would be more effective, and was closer to actually happening, than the name change Peterson has advocated.

As for the Boston N.A.A.C.P., it has taken no position on the name of Faneuil Hall. On the slave auction memorial, it appears the local leadership wanted to be consulted earlier in the process. Chapter president Tanisha Sullivan stated, “Our primary concern at this point is the lack of inclusion, especially inclusion of the Black American community whose ancestors any memorial of this type seeks to honor.”

Locke has considered himself part of that community. He’s African-American, graduated from Boston University and the Massachusetts College of Art, and has been working in greater Boston at least since 1998. He has stated that he reached out to the N.A.A.C.P. office at the start of his tenure as artist-in-residence, before conceiving of the memorial, and never heard back.

At the first news of objections, Mayor Walsh said he “hoped Locke would have the chance to explain his vision during upcoming public meetings.” But a scheduled Boston City Council hearing was canceled after the artist announced that he had to give up on the project in Boston.

Locke is taking a position at the Pratt Institute in New York this fall and looking at adapting the slave auction memorial design for another northeastern port city.


Charles Bahne said...

Thank you, John, for your in-depth investigation and analysis of this issue. I must admit that I was quite confused by the coverage in other news media, including the Globe. It seemed to me that the project was moving right along, and had a lot of support -- and then suddenly it was cancelled entirely. Not merely slowed down, but pulled off the drawing table, withdrawn completely by the artist, seemingly in a fit.

Locke told the Globe, “This city has broken my heart for the last time. I’m putting my house on the market and getting the hell out of here.”

Sounds like a mammoth collision of a few big egos -- unfortunately, to the detriment of those of us who live in and love Boston and its history.

Nancy said...

I don't understand why a group would want to wipe out or prevent something while at the same time expect people never to forget it.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't think anyone who objects to statues or buildings named after historical figures they think are problematic also wish to wipe out the memory of what those people did. If anything, they want those aspects of the figures' lives to be better known.

One issue is the question of honoring someone.

But in this case, the objections seem to center on turf. Some activists feel the process of creating and installing this art hasn't been inclusive. Others feel the proposed memorial cuts short their own proposals for Faneuil Hall.