Artist Withdraws Proposed Faneuil Hall Slave Memorial After Boston NAACP Says It Will Oppose It
After nearly two years in the making, artist Steve Locke has decided to no longer create a public memorial at Boston’s Faneuil Hall acknowledging that profits from the slave trade helped fund the landmark.
As cities nationwide grapple with memorials and namesakes tied to America’s history with slavery, the legacy of Faneuil Hall has come under scrutiny. The building’s namesake, Peter Faneuil, sold people of African heritage as slaves. Locke proposed his installation while others have sought to rename the building as a way to recognize the city’s ties to slavery.
Locke said Wednesday he felt Walsh’s support caused his installation to become a pawn between the mayor and the Boston Chapter of the NAACP.
“I’m being leveraged not by the mayor, but by the NAACP to embarrass the mayor,” said Locke. “I have control over my work so if these people want to have a fight with the mayor, I’m going to take my work out of it.”
Locke posted an email exchange with Boston NAACP President Tanisha Sullivan on his Kickstarter page, where the chapter president expressed her disapproval. He added that the local chapter’s opposition would have hindered the city’s support for his project.
The artist said he did not know why the local NAACP opposed his work, adding that he had never heard from the organization until now, a week before a scheduled public hearing about his installation.
Sullivan said Wednesday in a statement that she would have liked the creation of a public art installation at Faneuil Hall to include more community voices.
“The NAACP Boston Branch seeks a more inclusive discussion about the opportunity to memorialize these men, women, and children — where a memorial should be located, and how its design should be selected,” Sullivan wrote in a statement. “For example, the King Boston memorial process reflected a wonderfully inclusive community dialogue. If we are to own our past and commit to moving forward, we must do so together.”
Locke’s proposed memorial aimed to show Boston’s history in the slave trade in a new light by creating a 10-by-16-foot footprint of an auction block that would show the shipping routes used by Faneuil’s ship to transport Africans. The plan was for the space to be heated to a constant 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature of a human body.Locke developed the idea during and after serving as an artist-in-residence for the city of Boston.
Locke began a Kickstarter in June to create a prototype of the memorial to show funders. In just a week, it reached its goal. As of Thursday, it had more than $45,000 pledged.
Mayor Walsh also said Wednesday that he would have liked to see the project continue forward.
“I thought Steve’s proposal was thoughtful and an important telling of a history that must have more visibility,” Walsh said. “I was hopeful that a public process would have allowed Steve to provide that context.”
Locke said that this situation — what he sees as a conflict between political forces — has made him want to stop pursuing public art projects in Boston for now. He’ll instead be putting his energy toward getting ready to teach at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn this fall.
Jerome Campbell is a WBUR Poverty and Justice Fellow whose reporting is supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Co-published with WBUR.