Voters May Decide If Dudley Square Becomes 'Nubian Square' Boston
Since 2014, the Nubian Square Coalition, comprised of more than 30 businesses and individuals, has led an effort to rename the bustling Roxbury center. On Tuesday, Nov. 5, there will be a question on the ballot for Bostonians to answer: change the name of Dudley Square or keep it?
Dudley Square boasts a diverse population, comprised of a 55.6% Black and 22.4% Latinx residents, according to the 2010 census. The Nubian Square Coalition believes that the name change more accurately reflects the people who call the area home, instead of memorializing Thomas Dudley. "The primary reasons why we've got this campaign is we want to take down the name of a family who supported and advocated for legalization of a law to enslave African people," said Sadiki Kambon, one of the leaders of the Nubian Square Coalition.
Kambon has also been on the vanguard of other name changes, namely for the change of New Dudley Street to Malcom X Boulevard. "We're inundated with names of former slave owners like Warren Street, Ruggles, Codman, Columbus."
The name Nubian Square recalls the ancient Nubian Empire, which sat in modern day Sudan. As one of Africa's earliest civilizations, Nubia led military conquests, built pyramids and was known for plentiful deposits of gold. It was also the basis for the name of A Nubian Notion, a well-known community space and store that served Dudley Square and Roxbury for almost 50 years. It closed its doors in 2016.
Dudley Square's rename would honor the memory of A Nubian Notion and the legacy of the Nubian Empire. Sadiki and other organizers held a series of community meetings in Roxbury when the name change initiative began gathering steam in 2014. The purpose was to find a new name that the majority of those attending the meetings agreed on. "I originally suggested Meta Warrick Fuller, an internationally renowned Black sculptress with roots in Boston," Kambon said. "Folks thought that name was admirable but had other suggestions. I ... proposed 'Nubian Square' and we had a consensus on that."
While the Nubian Square Coalition has the support of community stakeholders like the Neighborhood Development Corporation Of Grove Hall and the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, there are other who don't agree with the renaming effort. Melvin Miller, the founder and chief editor of the Bay State Banner, wrote in a 2018 essay that the effort is "misguided." When we spoke earlier this week, he elaborated, "What are we spending a whole lot of time and effort on whether or not we should change the name? ... Who will make a dime more than they do now, if the name is changed?"
Miller went on to point out that, "We have numerous people whom we could remember if we want to change the name away from Dudley." He isn't alone in his position. One person walking in Dudley Square told me "Most people don't even know what they're talking about when they talk about Africa. It's a continent, it's huge."
Because of the way the ballot on the November ticket is written, there isn't an option for those who support the name change but don't agree with the name. The ballot asks, "Do you support the renaming / changing of the name of Dudley Square to Nubian Square?" but it doesn't leave wiggle room for other options. "I think unfortunately, it's worded in such a way where those are the only options," said City Councilor Kim Janey. Roxbury is in her district. "There is no option that says, 'Yes, I would like to change it from Dudley Square, but I'd like to maybe put forth another option.' "
Janey is firmly focused on things like decreasing the wealth gap, increasing wages and creating more affordable housing for the district. But she's aware that the issue of a choosing a "name" has roots in rebellion. "Names are important and they bear a great deal of significance. And I think this cuts across a variety of cultures," Janey said. "Residents determining for themselves what they want to be called ... that is the strength."
In the 1940s, the Black population in Roxbury dramatically increased during the Great Migration from the South. In the '60s, stores like A Nubian Notion began to thrive, creating communal space for Dudley's diverse population to engage in cultural exchange. Dudley Square also had its downsides. Systemic inequalities, like redlining, school segregation, housing discrimination and low wages, created conditions ripe for homelessness and violence.
Exasperated by the lack of support from the city, some Roxbury residents mobilized in 1986 to secede "12.5 square miles out of Boston’s center and rename it Mandela, after South African black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela," the Los Angeles Times reported. The group acquired enough signatures to put a "non-binding referendum on the November ballot in the districts, where 98% of Boston blacks live."
Kambon, who remembers the effort and was a part of it, said that people underestimated the power of changing a name. "I think it's interesting when folks say it's just a symbolic act," he said. "Because ... Mayor Flynn and his administration ... stood up in resistance to it because they knew what that meant. That meant we were going to be taking control of our own destiny. And that is troublesome for a lot of folks out there, particularly the forces of white supremacy."