As tourists shop or eat lunch in Faneuil Hall, artist Steve Locke wants a marker in the ground that acknowledges a well-known, but often unspoken truth: that Peter Faneuil enslaved people.
Therein lies the irony, that this wealthy merchant who funded “The Cradle of Liberty” as Faneuil Hall is known, used profits earned from the slave trade to build and gift this meeting house to the city.
On Juneteenth, which commemorates June 19, 1865 — the day that news of the abolition of slavery reached Texas, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation — Locke launched his Kickstarter. In one week, Locke surpassed his goal of $30,000 to build a prototype of what his Auction Block Memorial in front of Faneuil Hall may eventually look like. At last check, the campaign had garnered more than $33,000 in financial support.
Locke, a former professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design who starts at Pratt Institute in the fall, had been working on this idea for two years during and after serving as one of the city of Boston’s artist-in-residence. He never expected this kind of response.
As cities nationwide are tearing down memorials constructed decades after the end of the Civil War and labeling them symbols of white supremacy, Locke hopes his monument advances the conversation and reminds everyone that human beings were also sold in this marketplace.
“I refuse to make some sort of heroic statue of someone because there's not,” Locke said. “There's no heroism here. There's victimization and kidnapping. ... I can imagine what it must have been like to have been kidnapped and brought to that place, which for all intents and purposes is no different than it was in the Colonial period. It’s still a site of exchange and commerce and sales.”
Locke's proposed monument is a 10-by-16-foot footprint of an auction block, which the artist refers to as the site that transforms humans into property. Inside will outline the shipping route of the Peter Faneuil's ships, which carried Africans as part of its cargo through the Transatlantic trade from Africa, across the Caribbean, and eventually to North America and back.
Locke drew inspiration from Horst Hoheisel’s “Memorial to a Memorial” in Buchenwald, Germany, outside the notorious concentration camp. Hoheisel’s memorial is a simple stainless steel plate bearing 51 nationality groups of the victims who died there.
It remains heated to a constant 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of the human body, so those visiting the site can touch and connect with the dead. Similarly, Locke's bronze plate will be heated to evoke the presence of those African souls who stepped into Boston on Merchant’s Row as chattel.
“It's too late to feel guilty. It's too late to feel ashamed. It's too late for that stuff and it's a waste of time,” Locke said. “So let's count up all the bodies, let’s dig them up, let’s show where they were buried, and let’s have a real truth and reconciliation conversation. Let's have a real one, not just one that makes people feel better for being white or makes black people feel bad for being black. Let's just talk about what happened.”
Kara Elliott-Ortega, Boston's chief of arts and culture, said the city is supporting Locke’s efforts. Part of Locke’s funding includes $150,000 from the Edward Ingersoll Browne fund in the city's treasury. The money is specifically meant to go toward projects that will improve public spaces. Locke is in the process of raising the other $150,000 for a total of $300,000. His next steps involve using the money raised by his Kickstarter to create a prototype of the memorial to show to possible funders. The project is contingent upon Locke's fundraising. He hopes to raise the $150,000 and complete the memorial by Juneteenth of 2020.
“I think also if you can walk through some of our historic spaces now and not feel uncomfortable, that's a position of privilege that you're experiencing because of the story that's being represented there,” Elliott-Ortega said. “Steve has talked about walking through Faneuil Hall and not seeing the history that he relates to represented. There's a lot of people who feel that way because some aspects are not being told and some truth is not being told.”
The memorial will tell the story of an enslaved person's travels in two parts. A smaller rectangular section is the site of the auctioneer. For the larger section, Locke analyzed the manifest of a slave ship. This document gave details of the ship and its cargo including the exact measurements that slave ships had to transport their human cargo, approximately 3-by-5-feet.
Barry Lawton is spokesman for the the New Democracy Coalition, an organization leading the effort to rename Faneuil Hall. They want a hearing for city council to listen to their supporters. They originally suggested that the building honor Crispus Attucks, the first American killed in the American Revolution, who was also a black man, but they're open to other possibilities. They see the memorial as a separate issue all together, he said.
"You know Faneuil Hall was the clear target because it has a greater redeeming value for advancing this city and changing the narrative of this city than just putting up another memorial," Lawton said. "Certainly the council has wisely addressed and we certainly concur with them that there are other groups that we have proposed [to name the building after, like] women, Native Americans, many other people that contributed to the revolutionary effort."
Locke considers renaming efforts as a form of erasure. There’s a need to confront the truth, he said, not to rename it. That’s another reason he chose bronze and bronze patina as his proposed material for the auction block — the same material used to immortalize white leaders across the city.
The entire plate won’t rise from the ground or be placed on a platform. It’s a model for how “wealth traveled through enslavement," according to Locke’s description of the project. As a result, it will be stepped on, ignored, or driven over, Locke said, in the same way that slavery has been for more than a century. But the heat will prevent winter snow from covering it.
When asked what he hopes people years from now will make of his monument, Locke said he can’t think that far ahead. What he knows for certain is that his life as a college professor and a black artist is something his ancestors could have never even fathomed.
“To know that somebody who is the descendant of enslaved people marked their grave. That's really what I want people to think about when they think about the work,” Locke said. “It took a black man 389 years to muster the political and social will to mark this spot so those people can rest in peace.”
This segment aired on June 28, 2019.