Historic debate as some push to rename Boston landmarks

BOSTON — In cities like New Orleans and Richmond, statues erected to commemorate Confederate soldiers have been torn down. And in Boston, the effort to remove controversial names from iconic buildings and streets is taking hold.

Faneuil Hall, along Boston’s Freedom Trail, is named after Peter Faneuil, a colonial-era merchant linked to the slave trade.

The New Democracy Coalition, a Boston-based non-profit and non-partisan coalition committed to civic action, is leading a boycott of the famous tourist spot and asking the city to hold a hearing on the feasibility of a changing the building's name.

"The average visitor to Faneuil Hall will hear that Faneuil Hall, in fact, was constructed through the sale of a slave boy," said Kevin Peterson of the New Democracy Coalition. "That’s a tragic part of history that we need to discuss."

"If we were to remove the name, we will at the same time engage the larger Boston community in an educational process around its legacy and its connection to slavery," said Peterson. "Also, we will be able to engage the Boston community in conversations about how we come together racially.”

That was the idea behind bringing back Jersey Street outside of Fenway Park. For years, it had been Yawkey Way, named after the team's long-time owner Tom Yawkey. Critics said he was slow to integrate the team in the middle of the 20th century.

Outside the park, some visitors told Boston 25 they don't agree with renaming historic sites or taking down statues.

"Taking down a statue isn't going to change history," said one man. "We should learn by them. The statue should actually be a way of people saying we've done good, let's not do it again."

"They should be staying with the history that made the area, the city... you know, there's a lot of bad that's happened everywhere, are you going take every sign and statue down?" said another visitor.

The Faneuil Hall organizers think changing the name of such a well-known landmark can send an important message about where the city wants to go. "This effort isn’t really about rewriting history,” said Peterson, "it's about addressing our full history.”

Carl Robert Keyes, a history professor at Assumption College in Worcester, said “I think that one thing that we need to keep in mind about this is that these monuments are not just about our past. They are not reflections of our history, but instead, they represent what we want to commemorate today.”

Keyes said making changes, however, can be complicated."We traditionally like to tell the story of American triumph, American progress, but that is a partial story. Part of being intellectually honest about our past is recognizing how complex the narrative was."

That recognition is underway in Brookline where The Devotion School, named for Edward Devotion, the man who bequeathed the land and was a slave owner, is in the process of being renamed after 120 years. Brookline students will be involved in the name deliberations and will make a recommendation to the school committee.

"This is an incredible opportunity, a real-life learning opportunity for the students to be leaders in a civic process that is governed by town by-laws," said Andrew Bott, the school superintendent.

Brookline School Committee Chair David Pollak added, "This isn’t just about the name of a school, these issues belong to the entire town."