THERE’S NO BRONZE traitor astride a horse. No statue whatsoever. In fact, it can be a little tricky to suss out who exactly Dudley Square is named after.
But this era’s moral reckoning with villains from the past will soon shove aside the timeworn geographic honorific memorializing Thomas Dudley, a colonial functionary who was in charge when the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially sanctioned slavery.
Instead, when the Public Improvement Commission votes Thursday, it will almost certainly opt to change the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is confident that will happen, he said in an interview last week.
“This square will be called Nubian Square,” Walsh said at an event in the Bolling Building. “The voters voted it.”
Changing the name of the square could spur the MBTA to change the name of the major bus station there, too. T policy calls for the names of stations to reflect the names of nearby squares and streets. In the case of Dudley, even once the commission changes the square name to Nubian, Dudley Street will continue to run through the neighborhood.
Renaming streets and squares is hardly new – just try finding Government Center or Downtown Crossing on an old map of the city, let alone the Innovation District. But there is a more recent nationwide trend to do away with names and statues that show undue reverence for racists. Given that, some wonder where the renaming will end.
One of the city’s most well-known buildings, Faneuil Hall, is named after Peter Faneuil, who not only enslaved people, but also invested in the slave trade. An artist had planned to install a slave auction block outside the tourist attraction to better acknowledge Boston’s ties to slavery, but he subsequently withdrew that idea.
Boston and the MBTA recently altered signs so the street running behind home plate at Fenway Park and the nearby commuter rail station are no longer named after Tom Yawkey, the former owner of the Red Sox who was infamous for dragging his feet on hiring black ballplayers until well after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
“What I am hopeful for is that during this process we can perhaps come up with a framework for how we think about name changes,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston. “Given the history of this country and how naming has happened, especially in older cities like Boston, we could have these conversations every day. They could come up very frequently.”
The NAACP Boston branch has no position on whether to change the name of Faneuil Hall, but Sullivan said a discussion about that would be worthwhile. Conversely, Sullivan is fully supportive of renaming the cluster of streets in Roxbury.
Naming a historically black business district in the city after an ancient African kingdom will be a positive step for the community, said Sullivan.
Nubia was a civilization along the Nile River that rivaled Egypt more than two millennia ago, according to National Geographic, but in the modern day, the term Nubian has also taken on a broader definition to describe the whole African diaspora, according to PBS.
Credit for the Dudley Square name change belongs to people such as Sadiki Kambon, who mobilized support in the neighborhood and says young people are already calling the area Nubian Square.
“We felt it was a major contradiction to have our primary commercial shopping district in Roxbury, serving black and brown people primarily, named in honor of a slave-advocating family,” Kambon told state lawmakers earlier this month.
The square is named after Thomas Dudley, who was given the job of deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, and sailed from England to the New World outpost the following year. Dudley later served four stints as governor, including one that lasted into 1641, when slavery, which already existed in the settlement, was “legally sanctioned,” according to an official history.
Dudley’s son, Joseph Dudley followed in his father’s mold as royal governor of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay and New Hampshire. During that time, the colony passed a racist law banning white people from intercourse with black people. The prescribed punishment for black men and women alike who violated the statute was that they be sold and sent out of the province.
The vote Thursday is the last step along the way to changing the name of Dudley Square. Last month, voters around the city weighed in on a non-binding referendum on the idea. While citywide the name change was not very popular, losing 46-54 percent, it had broad support in the Roxbury neighborhoods around the square, winning two thirds of the vote.
Walsh said the city didn’t have the legal authority to poll voters in only one neighborhood, but he values nearby residents’ perspectives on it more because “it impacted this area.” That vote also gives pols the impetus and the political cover to back the name change.
Boston City Councilor Kim Janey, whose district includes Dudley, supported holding the non-binding referendum, and wants the city to follow through on her constituents’ desires, but she remained officially neutral before the vote.
“We see efforts all across our country to address and confront our racist past and present, whether it’s tearing down monuments or new names for different squares and streets. This is no different,” said Janey, who is the incoming council president, in a statement Wednesday.
Kambon liked the idea of renaming Dudley before he and others had settled on what to call it next. His first proposal was to name it after Meta Warrick Fuller, a black sculptor who died in 1968.
But then others suggested naming it after the freedom fighter Harriett Tubman or other figures from African American history.
“We couldn’t reach consensus,” Kambon said. Finally, the group settled on Nubian Square, because, as Kambon put it, “We’re all Nubian people.”
Like many cities, Boston has a particularly fraught history with racism and racial oppression. It also has a reputation as a staid place that clings to tradition. Renaming a major up-and-coming business district Nubian Square flies in the face of those precedents.
Boston’s black community will receive the national spotlight next summer when the NAACP national convention will be held in the South Boston Seaport. By that time, the biggest square in Roxbury will be Nubian Square, according to Walsh.
NAACP CEO Derrick Johnson didn’t have an opinion about the specific move to rename Dudley, but he is generally supportive of that sort of thing.
“If the residents of that community decide to adopt the name that best reflects their personality or values, I think that’s something to be commended,” Johnson said in a brief interview.