Black History 365: Boston takes rare step of apologizing for its role in slavery and its lasting harm

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June 17, 20228:02 PM ET

Tovia Smith Twitter Facebook

BOSTON — Boston has just become the first major city to offer a formal apology for its role in trans-Atlantic slavery.

Coming nearly four centuries after slavery began here, a city council resolution that passed unanimously Wednesday condemns the unique “dastardliness” of slavery, and its legacy of “systemic white supremacy and racism” that’s reflected in ongoing racial inequities in housing, education, income and more. The city council offered its “deepest and most sincere apology,” and acknowledged “responsibility in […] the death, misery and deprivation” that slavery caused.

The resolution, which is non-binding, pledges “efforts to repair past and present harm done to Black Americans,” to remove “prominent anti-Black symbols” in the city, and to increase public education on how the slave trade “impacted Boston’s past and present systems of oppression.”

The move is mostly symbolic, as it includes no funding for specific policies or programs and stops short of another proposal that would create a commission to study reparations. That measure was given a hearing by the Boston City Council in March, but has yet to come up for a vote.

But Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, who proposed the apology resolution, calls it “an opening salvo.” She said the city must first acknowledge how “great personal and institutional wealth in Boston was built on the backs of enslaved Africans who reaped none of the economic benefits from their labor,” before the city can “begin discussions about what it means to truly undo the harm.”

L’Merchie Frazier, director of education and interpretation for the Museum of African-American History, Boston/Nantucket, also sees the apology as just a first step.

“An apology cannot bring back lives, and cannot account for the enslaved people […] giving their blood sweat and tears for the survival of others,” she said. “But an apology signals a more direct trajectory toward reparative and restorative justice.”

City Councilor Frank Baker, who is one of Boston’s more conservative councilors, conceded he was “a little uneasy” about the measure because he feels personally “so far removed” from the sins of slavery.

“The apologize part is difficult for me,” he said. “But I think if my words can help your community heal and our community in Boston heal, then I’m absolutely ready to do this.”

Supporters are hailing the resolution as especially significant for a city still dogged by a reputation for racism. In a statement, Mayor Michelle Wu said that Boston “must acknowledge and address the dark pieces of [its] history that too often go untold,” and that the city has “a responsibility to condemn Boston’s role in the atrocities of slavery, and the lasting inequities still seen still today.”

The Rev. Kevin Peterson, founder of The New Democracy Coalition and who was instrumental in crafting and advancing the resolution, agrees that the public acknowledgment of Boston’s past is critical. Because Boston is recognized as a hub of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, and because it’s seen as the “cradle of liberty,” he says, “so many people […] think slavery could not have existed here.”

But Boston was actually a busy port for slave trade with the West Indies and West Africa, beginning with the voyage of the ship Desire in 1637-1638, which brought Native American captives to be sold in the Caribbean in exchange for enslaved Africans and raw materials. At least 175 transatlantic trips started in Boston, according to the SlaveVoyages online database.

About a quarter of all white Bostonians who had estate inventory taken between 1700 and 1775 owned enslaved people, according to Western Washington University history professor Jared Ross Hardesty, who is quoted in the resolution. At the peak of slavery in Boston in the mid-18th century, Hardesty estimates more than 1,600 Africans were enslaved in Boston.

And although Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, Boston remained complicit in the practice for decades, buying slave-produced commodities and selling goods and produce to be used or consumed by slaves elsewhere. In addition, the federal Fugitive Slave Acts provided that former slaves living in states where slavery was outlawed could be captured and returned to slavery.

While hundreds of local and state governments, universities and other institutions have offered proclamations,plaques and memorials to recognize or commemorate past racial violence and injustice, (ranging from slavery to segregation or, for example, a specific act of lynching,) less than 20local or state governments have offered an official, blanket apology for slavery, according to the African American Redress Network, which tracks such moves.(That number, they say, is expected to grow slightly as they complete their data collection.)

“What Boston has done is very significant,” says Justin Hansford, who is co-founder of the AARN, law professor at Howard University School of Law and executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center. “Many municipalities and states have put up markers to memorialize historical atrocities, but [there are] very few instances of formally apologizing for slavery, in part, because […] there this idea that you’re putting yourself on the hook for restitution.

“It’s a big problem,” Hansford says. “When you’ve been harmed by someone you want an apology. You’re trying to rebuild a relationship, so there has to be a genuine expression of remorse.”

Indeed, even if reparations are the end goal, an official apology must be the first step in the process, according to a model roadmap developed by the National African-American Reparations Commission.

Peterson, who helped push Boston’s formal apology, says he hopes it will not only “open the door” for a serious conversation about reparations, but also that the explicit admission of responsibility will compel it. He’s also hoping to see prompt action on the part of the resolution that pledges to remove “prominent anti-Black symbols in Boston.

“Faneuil Hall is the main target,” Peterson says, referring to the historic, landmark building turned major tourist attraction, that is named for Peter Faneuil, an 18th century merchant, slaveowner and trader whose fortune derived from his complicity in the system of slavery.

While Faneuil Hall is celebrated as the “Cradle of Liberty” where Samuel Adams and other founding fathers met and planned the Boston Tea Party and other acts leading up to the America Revolution, Peterson calls Faneuil a “white supremacist” and has been pressing for a name change for years, even embarking on a hunger fast to make his point. He says Boston’s formal apology for slavery now “emboldens” efforts to change the name of “the most egregious expression of white supremacy among our symbols in the city of Boston.”