Dudley or Nubian? Activists want to change the name of Roxbury’s commercial center
A group of Roxbury residents seeking to change the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square took their case to the Boston City Council last week.
The Nubian Square Coalition has gathered signatures from 50 registered voters to secure a slot on the Nov. 5 ballot for a non-binding advisory question on whether to change the name.
Coalition leader Sadiki Kambon told councilors that he sees the push to rename the square as an outgrowth of efforts around the country to remove monuments and symbols representing historical figures who were racist. While there’s no evidence that anyone in the Dudley family owned slaves, coalition member and former District 7 City Councilor Chuck Turner said two members of the prominent Colonial-era family —governors Thomas Dudley and Joseph Dudley — created laws sanctioning slavery in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
“Those of us who support the name change believe that anyone who learns the history of the Dudleys’ role in establishing slavery can understand why the Dudley name needs to be removed from the commercial district that serves as the heart of Roxbury’s economic life,” Turner told the council.
Kambon said the name Nubian Square refers to the ancient African empire in the Nile Valley. He also said the Nubian name would pay homage to the Abdal-Khallaq family, who for a half-century owned the Nubian Notion store on Dudley Street, which sold jewelry, clothing and objets d’art from the Nile Valley. Kambon further cited the ongoing gentrification of the area, wherein wealthier white people are moving into areas that have long been black and Latino.
“We want to send a message to the forces of gentrification that we as black and brown people intend to fight for the land we presently reside on,” he said.
Critics of the Nubian Square name, including Banner publisher Melvin Miller, point out that Nubians have a long history of slave ownership and trading.
“I believe renaming it Nubian Square is somewhat hypocritical,” said Boston University student Alex Mitchell, who lives in Roxbury. “In Sudan they had slavery up to 2005 and they also had genocide in Darfur.”
The push to rename the square represents an important opportunity to rename the square after someone with ties to Boston, Mitchell added.
“Martin Luther King, Elma Lewis, Bill Russell,” he offered as examples. “There are so many people from Boston who could represent us and who people from Boston could relate to more than Nubia.”
City of Boston Chief of Civic Engagement Jerome Smith said the administration will treat the non-binding advisory question as a poll. While the question will appear on ballots across the city, city officials will only consider the responses of residents of select Roxbury precincts.
“We as the administration support the Nubian Square Coalition’s effort to engage Roxbury residents in this ballot question,” Smith said. “The administration does not have a position on what the name should be.”
Smith said that if a large number of voters support the name change, the city will move forward with plans to implement a name change during the winter. The question will go before the City Council before a name change can be made official.
Smith cautioned that the name change for the public square involves more than changing the name of a street, as businesses in the area have incorporated the name into their branding.
“We’re changing a large neighborhood identity instead of a street name,” he said.
Speaking during the hearing, District 7 City Councilor Kim Janey said the conversation over a new name is important, but not one of her main priorities.
“While I think what we call ourselves is important and there has been an effort to change the name, I have been focused on changing the conditions in our community,” she said. “What I recognize as a city councilor is that even if we change the name tomorrow, we still have a wealth gap … we still have high unemployment, we still have schools we need to invest in.”