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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Friday, July 12, 2019

A Chance to Build the Auction Block Memorial

Steve Locke, a Boston-based artist, is running a Kickstarter campaign to create and install a memorial just outside Faneuil Hall to the people who suffered from the transatlantic slave trade.

Locke was Boston’s Artist-in-Residence in 2018, and the advisory board for this project includes Mayor Marty Walsh and other officials and leaders of local non-profit organizations. The campaign has attracted enough subscribers to reach its first fundraising level and is now aiming for a “stretch goal.”

This site was chosen because Peter Faneuil, the merchant who gave Boston the initial money for a town meeting-hall, gained some of his wealth from slaving voyages between Africa and the Caribbean. And more for shipping supplies from New England to the Caribbean. In addition, the building stands near what was once the Town Dock, site of occasional auctions of newly arrived Africans during the colonial period.

There is of course great irony in the building long called “the cradle of liberty” having those links to slavery. We Bostonians prefer to remember the abolitionist orators who spoke inside during the mid-1800s. But the mercantile economy of Boston was built largely on supplying the deadly work camps of the West Indies. Acknowledging that history in a moving way tells more of the region’s history.

Locke describes his memorial design this way:
The memorial consists of the footprint of an auction block—the site that transforms humans into property. In order to converse visually with an existing memorial sculpture in the area, the work will be bronze with a brown patina. The bronze plate will be approximately 10x16 feet overall and will contain the raised text and image of the routes and supplies of the Triangular Trade. Ideally, it will outline the shipping route of the [ship] Desire.

The memorial will have two sections, a site of the auctioneer (the smaller rectangular section at right) and a larger area for those being sold into slavery. The larger area will have the map of the Triangular Trade route that created the wealth of the Faneuil family and lead to the creation of the marketplace area. Because it is symbolic (and not an actual auction block), the bronze plate will be set into the existing bricks (or hardscape). It will be at grade, not a platform or a riser, on the same level as the street. It is not meant to intrude vertically in any way on the existing site. Instead, it is meant to be a plan on the ground, a metaphorical basis and model for how wealth traveled through enslavement.

The measurements of the block are taken from analysis of slaving manifests that dictate the amount of space available for "loose-pack" cargo of slaves. Humans were allotted a space of 3x5 feet. The block will be cast in sections this size to reflect this organizational structure. Also, the historic images of "slave packing" will be included on the smaller section of the block.

In order to evoke the presence of those Africans and African-Americans who came into chattel slavery through Boston, the bronze plate will be heated to a constant 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, similar to Horst Hoheisel’s Monument to a Monument in Buchenwald, Germany. This will make touching the work an immediately intimate and reverent experience, as if you are touching a living person. This will also keep the memorial free from snow in the winter. Even in a Boston winter, the auction block will be visible.
The funds will cover additional work on both the details and logistics of the memorial. The Auction Block Memorial fundraising campaign closes on 24 July.


John said...

I oppose this memorial for the sheer fact that as we're building memorials to remember the victims of slavery and never forget the scourge and blemish that it was on the fabric of our founding nation, we are systematically also destroying the legacy of our founding fathers by bringing down their memorials in their honor or altering the history of who they fully were, besides obvious slave owners. Let us not destroy the symbols of freedom and western culture by seeking to define them instead as nothing more than harbingers of the institution of slavery. It's unfortunate that they were slave owners or contributed to the slave trade including local merchants like Peter Faneuil, but they should never be defined by the stain of slavery. America was not founded to propagate slavery, it was an unfortunate biproduct of its true intent - the political and economic freedom embedded in a culture and celebration of the individual and western ideology stemming from its roots in Ancient Greece. Let us build more temples and memorials to freedom instead and the exemplars of western thought and individualism borne also from the tenets and doctrines of the Christian tradition. And finally, I don't oppose any mention or reference to the history of slavery, but not at the expense of some of America's honorable leaders from our past, including our Founders. So long as we continue this new trajectory of destroying the statues of many great men and engaging in revisionist history of our founding fathers, as imperfect as they were, to fit a certain political and ideological narrative fully underway in our schools and other institutions, i oppose the memorializatoon of slavery and it's dark history. Let us remember, honor, and celebrate more the positive attributes that only come with liberty. We need more the memory of liberty in 2019, seeing that we are increasingly losing it, than the remembrance of slavery.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm afraid I don't follow either the logic or the historical facts in this comment. To start with, it seems to demand that all public monuments be about positive things, but there is a long tradition of public recognition of losses. That’s why this project is called a "memorial."

Just as building a memorial for WW2 veterans doesn't entail taking down a memorial for WW1 veterans, memorializing the victims of the slave trade in an now-open space doesn't affect monuments to the Founders. How many examples of "bringing down their [Founders'] memorials" and "destroying the statues" can we name? (I wrote about one proposed destruction of a mural earlier this week, but that hasn't happened, and it would be good to see four or five before we treat it as a trend.)

This comment says, "I don't oppose any mention or reference to the history of slavery." But that's exactly what it's opposing—a memorial to what it acknowledges is the historical reality of slavery. This comment has a lot to say about how slavery was bad but then tries its hardest to disconnect that bad behavior from any "Founders"—even Peter Faneuil, who died decades before the Revolution began. We can't deny the facts that some of the real Founders kept slaves, kept many slaves, wrote the rules of the new republic to benefit themselves and other slaveholders, and so on. Pretending they didn't is creating false history.

The comment traces liberty to "Ancient Greece" and "the Christian tradition" and not to natural human desires. That writes off the yearning for liberty that the African people brought to Boston as slaves no doubt felt as strongly as people who arrived from Europe. In effect, this comment is saying their thwarted desires don't matter to the story of liberty in America.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

John, when you write that "the mercantile economy of Boston was built largely on supplying the deadly work camps of the West Indies," you sum up the issue about as succinctly as could be done.

"Deadly work camps" is a particularly-apt description of Caribbean plantations.

The same goes for NE overall, although the high-grade salt cod trade to Iberia was also important, particularly for the ports of Boston's North Shore. Eric Kimball does a fine job of laying out New England's dependence on the plantation regime in his dissertation and on his book chapter in Beckert and Rockman, eds., Slavery's Capitalism, "'What have we to do with slavery?' New Englanders and the slave economies of the West Indies."

As for the other commentator here, I have to observe that Peter Faneuil can hardly be considered a "founder" by any stretch of the imagination, so on one level his complaint is irrelevant on the face of it.

My only issue with the auction block memorial project is whether it's fair to tie Boston's dependence on slave economies around Peter Fanueil's neck when the guilt was so much more widely diffused.

Just for starters, the Hancock fortune was probably just as implicated in the "plantation complex."

Mike said...

I wish there had been such a memorial in Boston during my many trips there as a kid in the 1970s and 80s. I think we owe it to future generations to do a better job of explaining not only the role slave labor played in our country's earliest days, but also the irony of a slaveholding society crying out for liberty. Memorializing slavery and memorializing Founding Fathers who owned slaves don't have to be mutually exclusive, and shouldn't be if we want to tell the whole story of America.