Faneuil Hall's Ties To Slavery Spark Debate In Boston Faneuil Hall is visited by millions of tourists every year. But few know its ties to the slave trade. Boston is trying to figure out how to reckon with that history.

Faneuil Hall's Ties To Slavery Spark Debate In Boston

Faneuil Hall's Ties To Slavery Spark Debate In Boston

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Faneuil Hall is visited by millions of tourists every year. But few know its ties to the slave trade. Boston is trying to figure out how to reckon with that history.


Faneuil Hall is one of Boston's most popular attractions. Tourists, school kids and history lovers flock there every year to see the place that's sometimes called the cradle of liberty for its role in the American Revolution and the abolitionist movement. But now, some people in Boston are questioning how to address a little-known part of its history. From member station WGBH, Maggie Penman has more.

MAGGIE PENMAN, BYLINE: In the summer, the brick sidewalks around Faneuil Hall are packed with tourists. There are Freedom Trail groups led by sweating guides fully decked out in colonial garb. Street performers in the square draw a crowd. And little carts sell crepes and lemonade.

STEVE LOCKE: We're standing here. It's a beautiful day. It's a little cloudy, a little warm.

PENMAN: Steve Locke is an artist in residence for the city of Boston.

LOCKE: Faneuil Hall is full of people. And you would never know that there was a slave market here.

PENMAN: And this is the contradiction central to Faneuil Hall. The building has been a meeting place for revolutionaries and abolitionists. Frederick Douglass spoke here. But it's also a relic of the slave trade in Boston. Peter Faneuil was a merchant who made money off slavery and owned slaves himself. Slaves were bought and sold right next to what is now Faneuil Hall.

Locke is proposing a memorial to enslaved Africans and African-Americans that would be a bronze footprint of a slave auction block, which people could walk on, stand on and touch.

LOCKE: And if they touch it, they'll realize that it's heated to a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees to evoke the presence of a human body. So it's a way of marking the spot, metaphorically and physically, where people were transformed from subjects into objects.

PENMAN: For Kevin Peterson, though, a memorial doesn't go far enough. Peterson is the founder of The New Democracy Coalition, which promotes civic engagement in Boston. Since last summer, one of its main causes has been a call for the city to remove the name Faneuil from Faneuil Hall.

KEVIN PETERSON: We saw it as an opportunity to engage the nation and the city around the issue of race.

PENMAN: Peterson wants to rename the building for Crispus Attucks, who was killed during the Boston Massacre just a few blocks from where Faneuil Hall sits.

PETERSON: He's the first person to die in the Revolutionary War, happens to be an African-American who was part Native American.

PENMAN: I asked visitors at Faneuil Hall what they thought about the debate. Most of them were tourists visiting the city on vacation, and none of them knew about Peter Faneuil's role in the slave trade. But they didn't seem to have strong feelings about the name either way. Andy Dreyer was visiting from Minnesota.

ANDY DREYER: I don't know if you can change everything based on its history. But you know, if it's really hurtful to some people, it's definitely worth consideration.

PENMAN: As for the artist, Steve Locke, he wants to keep the name.

LOCKE: So it matters that it's Faneuil Hall. It matters that he built it. And he built it with the lives of trafficked people. So we really can't let him off the hook for that. And if we change the name, then we end up letting him off the hook for what he did.

PENMAN: Locke's proposed slave memorial at Faneuil Hall has support from the mayor of Boston and is currently being reviewed for funding. The advocates for changing the name haven't gotten a hearing. But whatever happens, these debates have resurfaced a chapter of history that many people might have forgotten - or never learned in the first place.

For NPR News, I'm Maggie Penman in Boston.


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