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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Thursday, September 03, 2020

A Community Discussion about Faneuil Hall

Last month Martin Blatt and David J. Harris wrote an essay in Commonwealth Magazine inviting a public discussion of whether to rename Faneuil Hall. They said:
We call upon the city to engage in an expansive community process to decide two issues in sequence—first, whether or not the hall should be renamed and, second, if so, what name should replace Faneuil. We believe that a robust public discussion will be a critical part of our reckoning whether or not the conclusion is to change the name.
Marty Blatt is Affiliate Professor of Public History and former Director of the Public History Program at Northeastern University. I met him when he was historian for the National Park Service in Boston and Lowell. David Harris is the managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at Harvard University and previously founding executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.

To move along the public conversation Blatt and Harris propose, Mass Humanities sponsored an online panel discussing Faneuil Hall with them and Prof. Jared Ross Hardesty, author of Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston and Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Here’s the video of that discussion.

Hardesty reviewed the evidence that Peter Faneuil, the early-18th-century merchant who left money to build Faneuil Hall, invested in the transatlantic slave trade. That documentation, he noted, came from a lawsuit about a voyage that ended badly. He may have put money into other slaving ships that simply didn’t end up in court. I suspect that if slave-trading was Faneuil’s main business, we would see a lot more lawsuits, but that doesn’t absolve him from being involved.

We already know that Faneuil was a major player in the Boston economy and prospered largely by supplying the slave-labor plantations in the Caribbean, which were death camps with sugar on top. The town meeting hall and marketplace he funded was meant to reflect the beneficence of the merchant class while benefiting the town’s businessmen.

The panelists all note that most of the people—both tourists and locals—who come to Faneuil Hall now for clam chowder, buskers, or a look at the great hall know little of that history. They also don’t find it at the site, at least not prominently. We can’t be surprised that most of the stories told at this city property are about Faneuil Hall’s role in the Revolution, abolition, and other Good Things.

Would taking Peter Faneuil’s name off Faneuil Hall really erase his place in history if most people visiting the place never know that history in the first place? Or is that name one of the few channels the site’s interpreters have to take visitors back to the realities of pre-Revolutionary Boston?

I’d say the charge that people seeking to change site names or remove statues want to “erase history” is a canard. Advocates for removing Confederate statues, to take one visible example, are also the last people who want their fellow Americans to forget the true history of the Confederacy. Critics of those folks are often the first to complain about hearing too much about slavery.

That said, there’s a downside to papering over history instead of erasing it, and a new name could end up having that effect. I think the panelists are too quick to dismiss something that Boston mayor Marty Walsh said back in June 2018 to the New York Times: “If we were to change the name of Faneuil Hall today, 30 years from now, no one would know why we did it.”

TOMORROW: What’s in a name?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

A new name is not necessary. We all know that many wealthy Boston citizens of those days had a some slaves. Slavery in Boston declined significantly after "Commonwealth v. Jennison". Finally, during the Civil War, Massachusetts finally abolished slavery (long overdue).

J. L. Bell said...

This anonymous comment doesn’t really engage in the conversation.

First, as the posting above describes, the issue with Peter Faneuil is that he made money from slave-trading and supplying the Caribbean slave-labor plantations, not that he and others owned “a some slaves.”

Second, saying “We all know” about slavery in Boston doesn’t acknowledge how many tourists who come to Faneuil Hall and other historic sites say they don’t know that history. In particular, I think most people, visiting and local, are still learning the extent of Boston’s economic interdependence with the West Indian plantations. What is the best way of conveying that history?

The description of the history of Massachusetts’s abolition of slavery is debatable. The lawsuits of 1783 were certainly important in making slavery unenforceable in Massachusetts, and no enslaved people were listed on the 1790 census. Visitors could still bring in slaves, however, until another legal decision in the early nineteenth century.

With that change, Massachusetts became de facto free territory until the federal Fugitive Slave Act, which was controversial in the state. In ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment, Massachusetts did its part to end slavery in the U.S. of A., but it had already abolished the practice locally.

Mike said...

I've been to Faneuil Hall many times in my life, and can verify your statement about how tourists often don't get the whole story behind historic people and places. Specific to Peter Faneuil, it was from this blog where I learned of his role in the slave trade. Even as a long-time resident of Buffalo, where you can't swing a dead cat without hitting something named after Millard Fillmore, this community is just now waking up the fact that he signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law.

I'm undecided as to the benefit of renaming or removing monuments to the darker moments of our history. One the one hand, it's wrong to glorify men who owned or supported the owning of other human beings as property; however, if we remove these reminders of the past, we risk forgetting it and how it brought us to where we are today.