About this project
Chattel slavery began in New England near the time of British Settlement. Wendy Warren’s New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America cites Governor John Winthrop’s journal of 1638 that documents the arrival of the Salem-based ship Desire. This ship carried enslaved Africans as part of its cargo.
Warren also tells us of Samuel Maverick, “an ambitious New England colonist,” who that same year developed a plan to increase his number of slaves by ordering an enslaved Black man to rape an enslaved Black woman. Coming just 12 years after the Pilgrim landing at Plymouth, the trafficking of African slaves is tied to the beginning of the Commonwealth and the United States of America.
The economics of slavery lead us to Peter Faneuil and his family. Faneuil’s success and wealth in early Boston as a trader was directly tied to trafficking Africans and African-Americans. His participation in the Triangular Trade of people, goods, and raw materials made this “Jolly Bachelor” a very wealthy man, and he passed that wealth onto the Commonwealth with the gift of the hall that bears his family’s name. This “cradle of liberty” is indeed built with money secured by the trading of black people for goods and services. Even Merchants Row, where enslaved people were sold, passes directly behind Faneuil Hall, which sits directly at the heart of the current city of Boston.
Slavery, and its economic impact, is essential to our understanding of the city of Boston and the nation. I intend to make this connection more visible with a memorial to the enslaved so that our community can understand, recognize, and grow from this history.
The Auction Block Memorial is my attempt to insert the living history of the enslavement of Africans and African-Americans into the historical narrative of Boston. The memorial consists of the footprint of an auction block—the site that transforms humans into property. In order to converse visually with an existing memorial sculpture in the area, the work will be bronze with a brown patina. The bronze plate will be approximately 10x16 feet overall and will contain the raised text and image of the routes and supplies of the Triangular Trade. Ideally, it will outline the shipping route of the Desire.
The memorial will have two sections, a site of the auctioneer (the smaller rectangular section at right) and a larger area for those being sold into slavery. The larger area will have the map of the Triangular Trade route that created the wealth of the Faneuil family and lead to the creation of the marketplace area. Because it is symbolic (and not an actual auction block), the bronze plate will be set into the existing bricks (or hardscape). It will be at grade, not a platform or a riser, on the same level as the street. It is not meant to intrude vertically in any way on the existing site. Instead, it is meant to be a plan on the ground, a metaphorical basis and model for how wealth traveled through enslavement.
The measurements of the block are taken from analysis of slaving manifests that dictate the amount of space available for "loose-pack" cargo of slaves. Humans were allotted a space of 3x5 feet. The block will be cast in sections this size to reflect this organizational structure. Also, the historic images of "slave packing" will be included on the smaller section of the block.
In order to evoke the presence of those Africans and African-Americans who came into chattel slavery through Boston, the bronze plate will be heated to a constant 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, similar to Horst Hoheisel’s Monument to a Monument in Buchenwald, Germany. This will make touching the work an immediately intimate and reverent experience, as if you are touching a living person. This will also keep the memorial free from snow in the winter. Even in a Boston winter, the auction block will be visible.
Because the work is at grade, it risks being ignored, stepped on, and driven over. There should be no impediments, borders, stanchions, or blockades, and people should be free to walk on the bronze plate or not. All of these “problems” or “accidents” are metaphors for how we move through the spaces of Faneuil Hall and Merchants Row currently. Visitors, whether they are tourists or locals, can engage with our history or not. That is the choice that many of us make daily. Being at grade also makes it accessible to all visitors, regardless of mobility. The heated surface and the raised text and images make it accessible to the visually impaired as well.
After much discussion with partners and supporters, I’m proposing siting the memorial on city-owned land at the front of Faneuil Hall (facing Quincy Market) on the Freedom Trail as it borders the building (the Eastern side). Metaphorically, this is because we are talking about a hidden history that is part of the site. People who enter, exit, or are waiting to enter Faneuil Hall from the front will have to contend with the memorial as they walk around the building. Those walking the Freedom Trail will also encounter it as they move through the various historical sites.
Why is this important?
Faneuil Hall figures in many moments of American history, dubbed the “Cradle of Liberty.” Yet no marker exists to tell the history of how it was built. There is no public indication linking the Faneuil fortune to the trafficking of humans, or to show Merchants Row as the place where Africans, as property, set foot on what would become the United States. To walk along the “Freedom Trail” through Faneuil Hall and Dock Square is to see all of Boston’s history memorialized in bronze. And yet the stolen lives and labor of the people who fueled that history remains unacknowledged.
It is past time that we acknowledge the role of unfree labor in the creation of the City of Boston, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the United States. Now is the time to begin this engagement with the complete history of Faneuil Hall—not to diminish the wonderful moments of the American Story that took place there, but to tell a fuller, more complete story.
About the artist/institution/collective
My project comes out of my yearlong engagement with the City of Boston as an Artist-in-Residence. During 2018, I was part of a group charged to look at the city through lenses of resilience and racial equity. The Auction Block Memorial is connected to my other public projects, Love Letter to a Library and Three Deliberate Grays for Freddie (A Memorial for Freddie Gray). All three of these works question the role of memory and the built form, the honoring of public loss, and the affirmation of public space.
I am very fortunate to have Patti Seitz of Seitz Architects as the lead architect on this project.
Because no one does anything alone, I have worked to put together an Advisory Board who have been invaluable in making the work happen.
CURRENT ADVISORY BOARD MEMBERS
- Martin J. Walsh - Mayor of Boston
- Camilo Alvarez-Director, Samsøñ
- Dr. Martin Blatt - Professor of the Practice in History and Director of Public History Program
- Dr. Kendra Field - Associate Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy/African American Trail Project at Tufts University
- L’Merchie Frazier - Director of Education at the Museum of African American History
- Dr. Kerri Greenidge - Director of American Studies Program/African American Trail Project at Tufts University
- Sean Hennessey - National Park Service (ret.)
- Dr. Ted Landsmark - Director of the Kitty & Michael Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University
- Dr. David Nelson - President, Massachusetts College of Art and Design
- Dr. Lyssa Palu-ay - Dean of Justice, Equity and Transformation, Massachusetts College of Art and Design
- Kenny Rivera - Design for Social Intervention
- Lynn Smiledge - Chair of the Boston Landmarks Commission
- Abby Wolf - Executive Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University
What will your contribution support?
- Material research and prototyping, including fabrication and testing of heating systems
- Paying artists and fabricators for their design and prototyping work
- Site survey and historical research: I want to work with local historians and an historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade to make certain the information is correct.
- Website that provides information about the project, a timeline, and most importantly, allows for public comment on the project.
When I first began working on this idea, the response from my immediate community of artists, thinkers, and students was passionate. I never thought that the City would support such a memorial, and when they did, I knew that people would want to be a part of its creation.
Some of the funds needed to realize this project have been secured from The Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund, a public art trust in Boston managed by the Treasury Department of the City of Boston. However these funds cannot be accessed until the project is fully funded. The project has the support of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the Boston Art Commission, The National Park Service, City of Boston Property Management (who manages Faneuil Hall), Landmarks Department, and Ed Flynn, the City Counselor for the District in which Faneuil Hall sits. With some of the funds already secured by the Browne Fund, I need your help to finish these last costs and make this memorial happen.
Freedom Trail Players® are a collection of experienced professionals who bring history to life along Boston’s iconic Freedom Trail 362 days per year!
Clothed in expertly tailored 18th-century clothing, Players interpret life in Boston during the American Revolution and beyond while portraying specific Bostonian characters. Players lead over one hundred thousand school children and adults during public and private tours year-round, help teach children in schools via extensive education programs, and deliver speeches, lead reenactments, and provide other services through the Foundation's History for Hire. Freedom Trail Players add to the Boston's and New England's arts and cultural vitality not only on the Freedom Trail, but through the other interpretive work they conduct day in and day out.
Because Faneuil Hall is such a key site in the Players work, the tour will include discussion of how the Memorial will impact the work they do with tours, students, and communities.
Banners from Love Letter to A Library Project
Risks and challenges
The biggest challenge has to do with the site itself. Faneuil Hall is on a landfill, and the water table is very close to the surface. Any excavation that we do has to take this into account and will affect how (and even if) we can install the piece on the spot we have selected.
Other challenges include creating a maintenance plan for a object that has to give off heat in the teeth of a Boston winter and deal with issues of drainage, salt, and wear. Prototyping is key to making sure all of these challenges can be met.
I am connected to the archeologist for the city and with the Property Manager for Faneuil Hall, and we’re aiming to do a feasibility study.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (35 days)