Boston artist Steve Locke says he is abandoning his proposed “Auction Block Memorial” for Boston’s Faneuil Hall due to criticism from the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Last year, Locke announced his plan for a Boston “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.” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has been supportive of the idea. And Locke reported that the city’s Browne Fund for public art had pledged him financial support for the project “contingent if I personally raised the additional $150,000.”

Steve Locke's proposed “Auction Block Memorial at Faneuil Hall" in Boston, 2018. (Courtesy Steve Locke)
Steve Locke’s proposed “Auction Block Memorial at Faneuil Hall” in Boston, 2018. (Courtesy Steve Locke)

Faneuil Hall was built in 1742 by Peter Faneuil, one of the wealthiest merchants in 18th century Boston, to give it to the city. His money came from a large inheritance from an uncle as well as trade in fish, tobacco, produce, rum, molasses, and enslaved people. The building, which was donated to the city upon Faneuil’s death, became both a public marketplace and a meeting hall where the American Revolution sparked.

Locke hoped to install a 10-foot by 16-foot bronze plate at ground level at Faneuil Hall with “raised text and image of the routes and supplies of the Triangular Trade” that built Faneuil’s wealth. Locke planed to keep the bronze heated at 98.6 degrees “to evoke the presence of those Africans and African-Americans who came into chattel slavery through Boston. … This will make touching the work an intimate and reverent experience as if you are touching a living person.”

On July 16 on Kickstarter, where Locke has raised more than $46,000 since June 19, he wrote: “Yesterday I received notice from the NAACP that, ‘the Boston Branch stands in staunch opposition to the Slave Auction block installation proposed by Steve Locke and the Mayor’s Office. We will be vocal on this over the coming weeks.’ … This stance by the Boston Branch of the NAACP puts the mayor in an untenable position as he cannot discount their opposition. Placing his support in jeopardy destabilizes the entire project, and without the support of the mayor’s office, the project will not have access to the site in front of Faneuil Hall.”

Samuel Adams monument in front of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Oct. 13, 2015. (Greg Cook)
Samuel Adams monument in front of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Oct. 13, 2015. (Greg Cook)

“The NAACP Boston Branch wholeheartedly supports honoring our enslaved ancestors,” NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha M. Sullivan told me via email today. “Recognizing the shared history that Bostonians have with the slave trade is critically important, from those enslaved to those who enabled slavery to those who remained silent during that painful part of our history. For the City of Boston to lean into that history is an opportunity we should not run away from. 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. 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. I am hopeful that we will continue to explore ways to have that discussion in the city, and that we will be intentional about engaging all of Boston, with a focus on the Black American community whose history of enslavement we seek to memorialize.”

Mayor Walsh said in a statement sent via his press office Thursday: “I thought Steve’s proposal was thoughtful and an important telling of a history that must have more visibility. I was hopeful that a public process would have allowed Steve to provide that context.”

The NAACP’s move comes after Boston City Councilor Frank Baker called on June 26 for a subcommittee of the council to hold a public hearing on Locke’s proposal. (A City Council Committee on Arts, Culture and Special Events hearing scheduled for July 23 on the proposal has now been cancelled.)

Then on July 5, Kevin C. Peterson, founder of Boston’s New Democracy Coalition, published an essay on Medium saying, “the proposed slave auction block memorial should not be installed at Boston’s Faneuil Hall” because it would be “sited in the wrong place,” there’s been “little public involvement,” and he sees the project as “the brainchild of Boston’s Mayor Martin Walsh” to avoid renaming Faneuil Hall. (Locke writes: “This was my idea-not the Mayor’s idea, or anyone else’s.”)

The New Democracy Coalition has been pushing for Faneuil Hall to be renamed. Their efforts have included a reenactment of slave auction outside the building as part of their “It Is What It Was Speak Out” last Nov. 10 (start watching the video below at 56 minutes). “We will not tolerate that name of Faneuil Hall any longer. It represents the insult made upon black Americans for centuries,” Peterson wrote in advance of that event. “We have to change the name.”

“It is our understanding the Steve Locke has chosen not to move forward with the project, which struck many Black Bostonians as a bad idea in a city that has ultimately failed to engage the issue of racism and white supremacy,” Kevin C. Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition, wrote in a July 16 email announcement. “The project was poorly timed and awkwardly presented. Nothing short of a serious conversation about race is needed. … The disappointing reality is that we have done little collectively to address systemic imbalance. Locke was wise and brave to pull out of the project.”

Locke wrote on Kickstarter July 16: “I proposed an artwork to honor the actual and metaphorical space my ancestors occupied when they were brought here during the colonial period by Faneuil and men like him. I proposed my work in the service of those women and men who were stolen, sold, and worked to death. I proposed it to alter the Faneuil Hall marketplace into a site of contemplation of an atrocity against Black people. That is what I tried to do. Anyone who suggests otherwise does not know me, the project, and how hard I have worked and fought to have a 10 x 16 foot space in this city to acknowledge the trauma that originates from Faneuil Hall. It was to be my gift to the city that helped me become the artist that I am.”

“While I am deeply saddened not to be able to share this public work with the Boston community, I am committed to seeing the project realized along the East Coast of the U.S.,” Locke wrote on Kickstarter. “…I have had interest from people in Salem, MA; Newport and Providence RI; New York, NY. I am going to refocus my efforts on proposing this work for another site.”

“This city has broken my heart for the last time,” Locke, who has been hired to teach at Pratt Institute in New York this fall after teaching at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston since 1999, told The Boston Globe last week. “I’m putting my house on the market and getting the hell out of here.”

Previously: Steve Locke Addresses Freddie Gray, The Boston Library And Boston’s Complicity In Slavery In New Public Artworks

If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.

Categories: Art Public Art