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Activists call on city to apologize for slavery

Group says city was complicit in transatlantic slave trade, threatens civil disobediance

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO

Citing records of slavery in 1638 in what is now East Boston, Dorchester activist Kevin Peterson is calling on the city of Boston to issue an apology for what he says was its complicity in the Atlantic slave trade, and to begin a dialogue about reparations.

In a letter sent to District 4 City Councilor Brian Worrell, Peterson asks Worrell to prevail upon the Council to issue an apology.

“Only then can we truly and earnestly discuss reparations. Only then can we find real reconciliation between whites and Blacks in the city, which is the source of continuing social discord and xenophobia in Boston,” Peterson writes.

Worrell did not respond to the Banner’s request for comment.

Peterson cites a 1638 journal entry by the Puritan governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, noting the arrival of three slaves in Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1641, the colony adopted the Body of Liberties, a set of laws governing the colony. The document allowed the enslavement of those captured in just wars, those who sell themselves into slavery and those sold as slaves to members of the colony, and drew on Biblical references to slavery, adding, “And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such person doth morally require.”

While enslavement of Africans and Native Americans persisted through England’s Colonial rule, Massachusetts outlawed all forms of slavery just months after the end of the Revolutionary war in 1783. During the Colonial era, Boston existed first as a Puritan settlement, then as a town. It was incorporated as a city in 1819, at which point it gained a mayor and board of aldermen.

In his letter to Worrell, Peterson does not specify what the Puritan settlement’s involvement with slavery was.

Former state Rep. Byron Rushing, who heads the Roxbury Historical Society, says Peterson is conflating an entry Winthrop recorded in his journal of slaves arriving from the Caribbean with a record of colonist Samuel Maverick, who in 1638 purchased three slaves, whom he held in his settlement on Noddle’s Island before moving to New York.

“He’s mixed things up,” Rushing said of Peterson.

Peterson’s push for a reckoning with the city’s history of slavery goes back to 2017, when the activist began agitating for a change to the name of Faneuil Hall. Noting that Peter Faneuil, who constructed the hall and gave it to the town of Boston, made a fortune off a slave-trading business, Peterson argued for naming the hall after Crispus Attucks, a former slave who was the first to fall under a volley of British muskets during the Boston Massacre.

While Peterson has made little headway with that effort over the last five years, a separate initiative, also launched in 2017, yielded a different result.

Roxbury activist Sadiki Kambon argued for changing the name of Dudley Square, initially citing Thomas Dudley’s ownership of slaves. Although Dudley did not own slaves, Kambon eventually argued that, because he served as governor when the colony legalized slavery and signed the book of laws that included the legalization of slavery, his name should not grace the business district.

In 2019, Roxbury voters agreed, opting to change the name to Nubian Square, naming the area, ironically, after an ethnic group with a long and ongoing practice of enslavement.

In the current push for an apology, Peterson is opting for a different route. In a press release last week, Peterson said his group will conduct a series of sit-in protests at City Hall to pressure the Council into an apology. Peterson could not be reached for comment for this story but sent a statement to the Banner.

“It is clear that the city of Boston and the white citizens of Boston were complicit with regard to the transatlantic slave trade,” his statement reads in part. “The suffering and the loss of life experienced by slaves is clear. Before committing to a reparations process, we believe the city should first apologize to the degree to which it provided support for activities that supported Black slavery in Boston.”

Neither Worrell nor City Council President Ed Flynn responded to requests for comment.

If the past few years of Peterson’s activism are any indication, the Council may not respond favorably. In 2019, Peterson and a group of protestors pressuring councilors to support a name change for Faneuil Hall disrupted a City Council meeting, provoking an angry response from some members of the body. Councilors called security on Peterson and his fellow demonstrators, who then left.

Erratum:

An earlier version of this article stated that Tania Anderson issued a statement in support of Peterson’s call for an apology. While Anderson supports the city apologizing for its role in slavery, she has not spoken with or coordinated with Peterson.

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