L’Merchie Frazier says she was not surprised to see her event drowned out by a busy news cycle this fall.
During the week of October 12, the U.S. was experiencing dramatic increases in coronavirus cases, Amy Coney Barrett went before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss her Supreme COurt nomination, President Trump and Joe Biden held dueling nationally televised town halls and hundreds marched again in Boston and elsewhere asserting that Black Lives Matter.
So Frazier says she was not surprised that few locally seemed to notice the marker installed that week on Boston’s Long Wharf.
The glass and metal structure was placed near the water’s edge in recognition of the millions of enslaved Africans who died or survived the tortuous transatlantic journey to the Americas known as the Middle Passage between 1619 and 1865. The “Port Marker” was the culmination of a five-year dream for Frazier, the Director of Education for the Museum of African American History, one of the sponsors of the installation along with National Parks of Boston, Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project, Boston Art Commission, and former State Representative and historian Byron Rushing.
Last month, as the wind lashed mercilessly across the harbor, Frazier stood next to the marker to explain its significance. While many might have stood at that same spot overlooking iron grey waters and imagined a Pilgrim ship dropping anchor Frazier said she looked out and saw Black bodies -- “Those lost at sea and those survivors that were able to get to the shores here who helped to found America.”
The marker bears the names and brief biographies of notable 18th century Africans in America including poet Phyllis Wheatley and sailor Crispus Attucks, believed to be the first person to die in the Revolutionary War. Also written on the monument is a history of Boston’s role in the business of enslavement.
The purpose is “for people who pass by this marker to get the truth that Massachusetts was the first colony to legally adopt slavery,” said Frazier.
Frazier said that history is critical because many in New England think of only the South when imagining enslaved men and women. Many have no idea of the enormous role Massachusetts played in this brutal enterprise.
The same can be said of neighboring Rhode Island, said senator Harold Metts, who spearheaded a successful ballot initiative in the Nov.3 election to have the word “plantation” removed from the official name, "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations."
Metts said, “It’s really a sign of the times. When you think of the Confederate flag and the statues to Confederate generals and the Civil War where we had more people killed on both sides than any other war, and how America deals with the issues of race that we've never really healed from."
Rhode Island voters approved the initiative after a summer of nationwide protests and calls for racial justice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter demonstrations were accompanied by demands for the removal of statues and monuments connected to racism and slavery. Kevin Peterson — a minister who runs the New Democracy Coalition in Boston — has led a half-decade long effort to change the name of Faneuil Hall, named for a Boston slave merchant. He sees the Rhode Island victory as instructive in reaching his goal closer to home.
“We are in concert with activists in Rhode Island who sought to strip the name Plantation from its state seal……We believe that Boston can do the same in terms of the change in the name of Faneuil Hall,” said Peterson.
“Peter Faneuil was … a person who traffics in selling human bodies, Africans. His name sits atop a public building in the city of Boston," Peterson said. "It is a monument in our city which reflects white supremacy, which is odious to people who love democracy.”
Peterson believes the momentum is on his side, pointing also to Mississippi, where voters in November removed the confederate symbol from the state’s flag.
But in Boston, while Mayor Marty Walsh has declared racism a public health crisis, he has shown no inclination to change the name of Faneuil Hall. Mayoral candidates, Councilors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell, have not been clear on the issue. In a statement to GBH, Campbell said she supported having a public conversation, but that “removing names and statues won’t stop racism in the City of Boston or eradicate racial inequities.”
Frazier of the Museum of African American History agrees. “The hall has its place in history,” she said, pointing out that the very idea for the Port Marker in Boston began with the commemoration of the International Day of Slavery on Aug. 23 , 2015 at Faneuil Hall.
“Peter Faneuil was an enslaver," Frazier said. "However, I think these discussions have different remedies as we remove these, what's going to mark the history of what happened?”
History is complex said Frazier. She would rather see a marker in front of Faneuil Hall to explain the namesake’s connection to slavery rather than removing the name itself. But looking toward the harbor— where thousands of Africans were unloaded from ships like cargo — she conceded there will always be disagreements over how to mark history even among those who are in agreement on the need to demonstrate Black Lives matter, then and now.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the New Democracy Coalition.