Auction Block Memorial at Faneuil Hall
A Site Dedicated to Those Enslaved Africans and African-Americans Whose Kidnapping and Sale Here Took Place and Whose Labor and Trafficking Through the Triangular Trade Financed the Building of Faneuil Hall
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 to document the arrival of the Salem-based ship Desire, which carried enslaved Africans as part of its cargo. Warren also tells us of Samuel Maverick, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his plan to increase his number of slaves by ordering the rape of an enslaved woman. Coming just 12 years after the Pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth, it is clear to see that the trafficking of African slaves is tied to beginning of the Commonwealth and the beginning of the nation. Slavery, and its economic impact, is essential to our understanding of the city and the nation.
The economics of slavery lead us to Peter Faneuil and his family. Faneuil’s success and wealth 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 the “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. The “cradle of liberty” is indeed built with money secured by the trading of black people for goods and services. Merchants Row, where enslaved people were sold, passes behind Faneuil Hall.
No marker exists to tell this history. 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 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 remain unacknowledged.
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 of the transformation of humans into property. In order to converse visually with the existing memorial sculpture in the area, the work will be bronze with a brown patina. The bronze plate will be approximately 10 x 16 feet overall and will contain the raised text and image of the routes and supplies of the Triangular Trade. I will work with local historians and an historian of the Atlantic to make certain the information is correct. (If possible, I would like to find 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 brick hardscape. It will be at grade, not a platform or a riser. It will be on the same level as the street. It is not meant to intrude vertically in any way on the existing site, it is not meant to create any vertical visual disruption. It is meant to be a plan on the ground-it is the metaphorical plan, basis, and model for wealth 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. It will metaphorically bring the elements of transport to the site. 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. (For reference, please see Horst Hoheisel’s Monument to a Monument at Buchenwald.) This will make touching the work an intimate and reverent experience as if you are touching a living person. This will also keep the memorial free from snow in the winter since it will be the only heated surface in the space, thus even in winter the auction block will be visible.
Because the work is at grade, it risks being ignored, stepped on, driven over and all of those things are metaphors for how we move through the spaces of Faneuil Hall and Merchants Row now. There should be no impediments, borders, stanchions, or blockades. People should be free to walk on the bronze plate or not. They can engage with our history or not. That is the choice that many of us make daily. Being at grade 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 propose 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 navigate. Those people walking the Freedom Trail will encounter it as they move through the various historical sites.
This work comes directly out of my artist's residence with the city of Boston for 2018. I am deeply grateful to the city for this opportunity. As artists and thinkers, I and my colleagues in this year's cohort were charged to look at our city through the lenses of resilience and racial equity. As Mayor Marty Walsh has stated, "True resilience requires us to go beyond treating the symptoms of inequality, to changing the structures that produce it. To be a strong city, we must learn to understand one another, break down the systemic racism of our history, and advocate for the rights of every Bostonian."