BOSTON — Boston’s Faneuil Hall has served as a home for civic rhetoric from the time colonists congregated to talk about freedom from the British. But the site known as the Cradle of Liberty is named after wealthy 18th century slave owner Peter Faneuil, much to the chagrin of activists who are planning a boycott.
Kevin Peterson is leading the boycott of the city-owned building this week, saying the hall was constructed from money derived from the sale of slaves, and that the city’s African-American population doesn’t feel a connection to the site.
Peterson said letters to Democratic Mayor Martin Walsh’s office and the Boston City Council calling for a public hearing have gone unanswered.
As an alternative, Peterson and other members of the New Democracy Coalition are calling for the name to be changed to commemorate Crispus Attucks, a black man who was killed during the 1770 Boston Massacre, generally considered the first casualty of the American Revolution.
The mayor’s office declined to comment and instead referred The Associated Press to a previous statement saying, “We can’t erase history, but we can learn from it.”
Peterson said he also dropped a letter off at City Council President Andrea Campbell’s office in June. She did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Across the U.S., parks, buildings and even a residential college at Yale University have been renamed to erase ties to slavery. Harvard Law School abandoned its shield in 2016 because it was based on the 18th century family crest of a benefactor who owned slaves.
History of the landmark
Merchant Peter Faneuil offered to build a public market house in 1740 as a gift to the city on the site where slaves had previously been auctioned.
Completed two years later, the hall served as a meeting spot for colonists planning to overthrow King George III’s rule over the 13 colonies.
Abolitionists gave speeches opposing slavery from its pulpit. Women hosted a conference in 1915 to amend the U.S. Constitution in favor of universal suffrage. More recently, President Barack Obama gave a speech in defense of the Affordable Care Act there. These days, the hall also welcomes immigrants to its space for naturalization ceremonies.
Who is Peter Faneuil?
Faneuil was the son of French Huguenot parents who originally settled in New York. When they died, he moved to Boston to live with his uncle, Andrew Faneuil, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the city-owned building.
Peter Faneuil inherited the majority of his uncle’s estate and business and became one of the richest men in the city, trading in fish, tobacco, rum, molasses — and humans. According to an inventory of his estate after his death in 1743, he owned five slaves.
He proposed the building as a marketplace in 1740 and offered to fund its construction.
The National Park Service mentions Faneuil’s slavery ties in an online biography .
What would a boycott look like?
Peterson said the issue was first brought to the city’s attention in early 2017.
He alleges that tour guides barely mention the history of African-Americans and slaves at the site.
In an open letter to Walsh, sent last week, Peterson said protesters “feel compelled to engage in non-violent civil disobedience for the cause of the right to be heard, the right to be respected as black citizens.”
He calls Walsh’s support for a memorial for victims of the slave trade at the site “a distraction.” The city is currently looking at a proposal for a memorial designed by MassArt professor Steven Locke.
Peterson said the boycott would happen within the week and would be “four-pronged.” He says a business boycott in Quincy Market Place and the hall would be first, along with a picket, sit-in with “potential civil disobedience” at the hall, and a sit-in that would call attention to the private businesses with business ties to the city of Boston that have voiced opinion on the name change.