Faneuil Hall and the Moral Fogginess of Mayor Martin J. Walsh

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has refused city hearings that could change the name of Faneuil Hall in Boston, a city-owned building connected to supremacy and slavery. (Photo Credit: The Boston Globe)

All across the nation, communities are debating the relevance of statutes that speak invariably to our history. Americans are questioning the presence of Confederate cenotaphs that glorify men who fought to subjugate other humans. They are assiduously interrogating symbols on flags and the names of public schools and commercial districts in order to evaluate their civic purposefulness. They are surveilling what constitutes art in the public square and seeking to better contextualize the meaning of democracy in relation to our story — which is our history — even when it is a story only half told.

Such discussions have been roiling for nearly three years in Boston. While advocates have been engaging locally elected officials on changing the name of Faneuil Hall — an iconic downtown tourist relic associated with a slave trader who bequeathed the building to the city in the 1750s — the issue has morphed into larger, existential questions, namely: How do we understand the complexity of our collective histories, while at the same time respecting the heritage as well as specific matters of trauma experienced by others? And to what extent, 401 years after slavery was introduced into our nation, do we appreciate the desired goal of achieving a multi-racial democracy?

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Boston Mayor Walsh seems to miss the significance of this sort of exhaustive public inquiry — this exercise of engagement among ourselves for the purposes of gauging our identity. Or, perhaps, he chooses to ignore it, as part of his extended romance with political popularity.

But let’s be fair. Let’s hear his side of the argument: Walsh contends that changing the moniker of Faneuil Hall, named after a slaver-merchant, presents the risk of forgetting who “Faneuil” was as a historical figure. Walsh’s argument admonishes that we be careful not to “erase history” and that losing sight of Faneuil’s contribution to Boston might result in costly civic amnesia. He further asserts that we should be careful as to not commit to, what the ancient Romans called Damnatio Memoriae, — purging people from the public record. Such purging, Walsh seems to suggest, foments historical discontinuity.

The fault line in Walsh’s argument, however, is that it commends the very renaming of Faneuil Hall as a binary choice. Walsh presents the issue of renaming as an “either/or” proposition when the reality is that changing the name calls upon us to adjudicate something more complex — it calls us toward something more elaborate because it involves deep, knotty, complected community engagement. And in cases as this, in Boston and across the country, we are asking ourselves to hold ourselves accountable to who we say we are and what we profess to be as a democratic society. The enduring social fact endemic to democracy is, indeed, that: We can never lose history. We can only respond satisfactorily to its veracity. And, embedded in the response of each generation within a democracy is a commitment to the ideals of the nation. All history — even incomplete history — is true history. Yet, our task is to assure that this truth prevails in its completeness in an interest in the commonwealth.

To be sure, changing the name of Faneuil Hall demands us to re-examine ourselves against the many prevarications we have told ourselves about history, especially about slavery and the agency of Blacks in Boston and across the nation. It requires that we square ourselves against those half-told histories with honesty and a willfulness to collectively repudiate those lies for the sake of repair and reconciliation. It requires true leadership across the nation obligated to participating in the ritual acts of racial reckoning — which require the onerous task of shaking off all moral fogginess.

The effort to change the name of Faneuil Hall is neither grounded in racial idealism nor forms of historical recrimination. Instead it aspires to truth- telling that better positions the fuller community toward civic repentance, repair and reconciliation.

Two things Mayor Walsh needs to understand:

First, no aspect of human existence — whether it be our personal life experiences or the quotidian realities we face as community members — is binary. All lives are complicated, shaped by multiplicities of experiences, perspectives and encounters: All facts are confronted, inevitably, with counterfactuals. To suggest that changing the name of Faneuil Hall negates the history of Boston with absolute finality approaches a kind of incredulity that cheapens the richness of our interior commitments to justice and our collective histories.

The second point is that by retaining the name of Faneuil Hall, we fail to respond as citizens truly engaged in our ongoing fidelity to democracy. We fail at remaking ourselves by reconciling to history — answering to our history as if we were in conversation over milennia. This means confronting the good and the bad. And this calls for, what the late Harvard history professor, Nathan Huggins, called “a quality of courage.”

It should be noted here that renaming any building or removing any statute should not be directed at anyone individually. We are all faulty creatures, and as the Apostle Paul has said in the Book of Romans, we “have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Yet, each individual, such as Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson is representative of an age, of deep, enduring civic sins of which we should in no wise celebrate. Moreover, we should hold ourselves of our nation’s lowest moments as we look for more redeeming symbols to celebrate.

By changing the name of symbols of white supremacy we learn about the past and teach our progeny about our struggle and pain. We teach them the values of re-evaluation, restorative justice and the self-correction any society must endure if its goals is freedom. The past is never lost. And it is only valuable if we grow sagacious through filtering it in the most useful ways.

The New Democracy Coalition has called for a boycott of Faneuil Hall. It’s efforts are intended to initiate a more complex discussion about nations of racial repair and reconciliation. (Photo: New Democracy Images)

Slavery was patently undemocratic, to put it euphemistically. The sale of humans for money or grog was reprehensible. If we allow the name of a slave owner and slaver to remain fixed upon a publicly-owned building, or endorse Confederate memorials along our public landscapes, we find ourselves rebuking the very nature of a democratic enterprise which we otherwise value. This would render our history only half told.

Given all this, tautological and pedagogical lessons must be earnestly gleaned if we are to move on as a country dedicated to freedom: the grievances of the historically maligned in any given society (Blacks) must be taken seriously if we deign to call ourselves a true democracy. We will never achieve social equity in our nation without first lamenting past wrongs, embracing an attitude of public reconciliation and striving for reparations. The consequences for continuing to reject these lessons are our corporate betrayal and self-delusion.

We are all faulty creatures, and as the Apostle Paul has said in the Book of Romans, we “have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Yet, each individual, such as Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson is representative of an age, of deep, enduring civic sins of which we should in no wise celebrate.

Unfortunately, of the twenty million tourists who visit Faneuil Hall each year, 20 million lies are told. They informed that this monument is the Cradle of Liberty. The fact is that Faneuil Hall sits on land that was part of a slave auction bloc in the city for decades; that the enslaved there were sent bounded into the city’s homes — and across New England — to be abused, mutilated and raped; that the money derived from the sale of slaves there were re- invested into systemic global human trafficking that resulted in the death of millions during the Middle Passage.

The effort to change the name of Faneuil Hall — and other monuments reflecting white supremacy across the nation— is neither grounded in racial idealism nor in forms of historical recrimination. Instead, it is a reckoning about which our generation must struggle, like Jacob with the angel all night long. It is a reckoning that aspires toward truth-telling that better positions the fuller community toward civic repentance, repair and reconciliation. Appreciating this pending civic drama from this perspective will clarify our moral resolve and advance more expansive democratic notions of freedom.

Kevin Peterson is founder of the New Democracy Coalition and Convener of the Fanueil Hall Race and Reconciliation Project. He is a social and cultural critic.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store