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Faneuil Hall's complicated history is too important to mythologize

As a guide at Boston National Historical Park, it’s important to me that people understand Faneuil Hall’s connections to slavery.

People often wander into Faneuil Hall knowing little about its history. My own father, Boston-born and raised, told me that growing up he didn’t know what "Faneuil" meant.

Peter Faneuil was a wealthy 18th century Boston merchant. He dealt in New England’s most lucrative commodities, including: molasses, the sugar for which was harvested by slave labor; salt cod, which fed captives trafficked overseas; and enslaved Africans.

Like Faneuil, many Bostonians were in some way complicit in the institution of slavery.

Faneuil was also a generous benefactor, donating to religious and civic institutions alike. His lasting legacy is the namesake hall he funded in 1740. When Faneuil died, townspeople voted to name the hall after him to perpetuate his memory.

As Boston’s heart of commerce and government, Faneuil Hall became vital to everyday social life. Then, with the onset of the American Revolution, it also became a site of resistance.

Colonists there sought to secure their rights as British subjects, executed boycotts, and kindled mob violence. It’s where orators annually commemorated theBoston Massacre. It’s where revolutionaries compared their plight to that of the enslaved.

But some Boston patriots, like Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren, were actually enslavers.

In the 19th century, Faneuil Hall became a hotbed of abolitionism. There, Frederick Douglass and fellow abolitionists railed against the institution of slavery. But the future president of the confederacy, Jefferson Davis, also spoke at the hall, arguing that Americans were within their constitutional rights to consider people as property.

To this day, activists use Faneuil Hall to advocate for and against social and political issues. It’s a revered Boston landmark, but we must not mythologize it.

Whether or not we decide to rename the hall, I know I will continue to engage the public about Faneuil’s — and Boston’s — complicated relationship to slavery.

Commentator Nick DeLuca is completing his master's degree in public history at UMass Amherst. He also serves as a tour guide at the Boston National Historical Park.

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