Who is next? When the PC Police, embodied as John Henry, asked the Boston Public Improvement Commission to change a street name because he has been “uncomfortable” with the Yawkey Way street sign outside his office window, then who is next? When we start applying the morals (and I used that term loosely) of today to our own history then no one is in the clear. Not Tom Yawkey, not George Washington, not Peter Faneuil, not Arthur Fiedler, not John Singleton Copley of Copley Square fame and I would bet every soybean dollar of John Henry’s family farms not his own family either. Who wants that magnifying glass on their father, grandfather or even their own soul? John Henry, do you?
Yawkey Way and John Henry’s Fallen Bostonian Park
So Henry is “uncomfortable” with Yawkey Way being Yawkey Way because Tom Yawkey was a racist? Was he? I don’t know because I did not know Tom Yawkey. Then again, neither did John Henry. I do know he was the owner who integrated last in the major leagues and had few non-white employees. Let’s just assume that a man born in 1903 probably did have certain opinions about people of any color. Why? Because that was pretty much the norm of the day when Tom Yawkey lived. Segregation was the norm. Not mixing of the races was the norm. Not wanting to mix the races was the norm. Court ordered forced busing in Boston, to deal with the city’s continued segregation in its public schools, did not happen until 1974. Tom Yawkey died in 1976. Tom Yawkey was loved in this city not because he may have held opinions that today we find “uncomfortable” but because we would not have the Boston Red Sox as a team if Tom Yawkey was not the owner. He devoted himself and his finances to the Red Sox – in an era when no one wanted the team. As a bequest in his will, he also established the Yawkey Foundation whose philanthropy goes beyond words. They did not just give money to “white people” causes, by the way. Ever think that maybe, just maybe, Tom Yawkey did what we hope all of us do in life? Maybe just maybe he grew as a person. Maybe the man of 1956 was not the man of 1976. Maybe that is why he was mourned by this city. But before John Henry’s PC Police minions start jumping up and down, I ask, what makes Tom Yawkey so special to John Henry’s PC Police? Let us take a look at a few other Boston iconic names and places and see how they stand up.
If you walk from Park Street to Fenway, you probably walk through the Public Garden and pass the statue of George Washington, father of our Country. Well in 2018 you can walk in the Public Garden, the first public botanical garden, but it was fenced for a reason, to keep the commoners out – they were over in the Boston Common, not the pristine Public Garden. Anyway, even if we are somehow okay with that sectionalism, there is the George Washington statue, our first President riding a horse, as a great welcoming to Boston. It was unveiled in 1869. A little irony there since the Civil War had ended four years earlier and well, George Washington was a major slave owner in Virginia. He and his wife Martha owned hundreds of slaves. Hundreds. So as father of our country, do we hold him to the standards of today too, and tear down the statue like the hundreds of Lenin statues in Russia? There is a fallen monument park in Moscow where the statues of hundreds of felled Soviet statues and busts now reside. Maybe John Henry can ask Boston to set aside a piece of the Common, or even better maybe Henry can donate a portion of his own land in Brookline, where we can place all of the felled Bostonian monuments? We can call it John Henry’s Fallen Bostonian Park.
From Yawkey Way to Copley Square
Speaking of slave-owners, let’s talk about Peter Faneuil. He both owned and traded slaves. The money he made as a successful merchant, including of human cargo, paid for Faneuil Hall which he donated to the city of Boston. As the National Park Service website states, ‘there is some irony to be found in its nickname however, because a portion of the money used to fund ‘The Cradle of Liberty’ came directly from the profits of the slave trade.” So again, do we now refer to Faneuil Hall as, say, Old Boston Towne Market, because we need to suppress any history that makes us “uncomfortable”. John Henry, are you on the Old Boston Towne Market name change bandwagon too?
Now Arthur Fiedler is synonymous with the 4th of July. He brought music to the people, literally, which is why the footbridge and statue near the Hatch Shell is named after him. He was like all of our grandfathers wrapped into one – a loving man who loved the people. Fiedler gave us the Pops with its popular, traditional and classical music. Yet his daughter wrote that he was a terrible father, who drank too much and who caused “wreckage” in their family. Do we believe her every word? Do we now see Fiedler as less of a Bostonian because his personal life was not as successful as his professional life? Do we expect him to be perfect in order for him to be remembered fondly? If so then we have another statue for John Henry’s Fallen Bostonian Park.
Closer on any walk to Fenway, will bring you to Copley Square. The square is named for John Singleton Copley, renowned artist. His square is next to the John Hancock building, which is also a bit ironic since Copley hated Hancock. You see Copley was a Loyalist, who abhorred the Thirteen Colonies push for independence, also known as the American Revolution — so much so, that Copley sailed from Boston to England in 1774 and never returned. Copley considered himself British. Would have loved to have heard Sam Adams sitting in a pub in Colonial Boston verbally brandishing Copley as a traitor to the cause. So do we now change the name of Copley Square back to the original name of Art Square because Copley never wanted America to be its own independent nation? Do we ignore his talents as a premier artist, especially his portrait paintings of our Founding Fathers? John Henry, do we remove Copley’s name too to the Fallen Bostonian Park?
How This For Uncomfortable, John Henry?
This all began because John Henry was “uncomfortable” seeing the Yawkey Way street sign out his office window. I wonder how Henry would fare if the microscope was placed on his life and business interests where every comment and decision is scrutinized ad nauseam. We could begin by examining Henry’s great grandfather who emigrated from Londonderry, Northern Ireland and farmed in the slave state of Arkansas in the mid-1800s. In addition, we could look at Henry’s grandfather and father’s soybean business in Arkansas and Illinois and see exactly how many people of color were employed. We could even evaluate John Henry’s tenure with the Marlins and Red Sox and count the number of African-American, Hispanic, women and LGBTQ workers he had in high paying positions as Chairman and Owner. No one wants that kind of spotlight, where the complete picture of someone’s life can so easily be lost.
The Yawkey Way sign being removed does not change racism or bring comfort to Boston or anywhere else. History is not about comfort. And our history as a city is not easy. Yet we cannot learn from the past by whitewashing it away from public view like George Orwell in 1984, or because people are “uncomfortable”. Errors and transgressions are part of our processes, it is how we learn and get better as people. No human being would pass the perfection test, especially if we start placing the moral compass of today on times gone by. If that is how we look at our city’s history, then each and every one of us would be relegated to John Henry’s Fallen Bostonian Park. Imagine how “uncomfortable” John Henry would be then.
This article was written by Maura Porter, Editor in Chief, Yawkey Way Report