FAYETTEVILLE — The City Council will soon consider whether to rename a street in honor of an enslaved man who fled Fayetteville in 1841 in search of freedom.
The city’s Black Heritage Preservation Commission last month voted to recommend the council change the name of Archibald Yell Boulevard to Nelson Hackett Boulevard.
Hackett’s escape from slavery in Fayetteville set off an international dispute that eventually helped ensure Canada would remain a safe haven for people who were fleeing enslavement in the United States. Hackett’s journey is documented by the Nelson Hackett Project, an effort by the University of Arkansas’s Department of History to bring more attention to the story.
After fleeing Fayetteville, Hackett traveled north to Canada, which had recently abolished slavery and was under British rule at the time, according to the university’s research. Instead of finding freedom, Hackett was accused of theft by Alfred Wallace, a man who claimed to own him in Fayetteville.
While abolitionists called on Canada to give Hackett his freedom, supporters of slavery insisted that he be returned to the United States. Eventually, Arkansas Gov. Archibald Yell formally requested that Hackett be returned to Fayetteville, and when that request was granted, Hackett was publicly whipped, tortured and sold back into slavery in Texas. Hackett escaped again, but his fate is unknown.
The British government eventually passed laws that made similar extraditions much more difficult in an effort to prevent setting a precedent that encouraged slave owners to make accusations of offenses in order to reclaim enslaved people from the U.S.
Aside from proposing Hackett’s name be memorialized on street signs in Fayetteville, the commission is also working on a project to create a marker on the downtown square where Hackett once labored as a personal servant at a grocery store south of where the Bank of Fayetteville stands today.
Changing the name of Archibald Yell Boulevard has been discussed before.
Former Councilmember Sarah Marsh suggested a name change in 2019 before a vote to approve the 71B Corridor Plan, which includes suggestions for improving the safety and walkability of Archibald Yell Boulevard.
“I’ve had a lot of residents of south Fayetteville ask that we rename Archibald Yell Boulevard because Archibald Yell owned enslaved people,” Marsh told the council. “I think that as we move forward, we need to take action on that social justice issue.”
Yell, who was Arkansas’ first congressman and second governor, is listed in a Washington Post research project as one of over 1,800 congressmen who once enslaved Black people. For the project, the newspaper compiled a database of slaveholding members of Congress after researching thousands of pages of census records and historical documents.
Claims of Yell’s ties to slavery are also mentioned in a 1967 issue of The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, a publication of the Arkansas Historical Association. In the journal article, Yell is described as having a prosperous period after his congressional service. “By 1840 in Washington County alone, he paid taxes on 800 acres of land and eight Negro slaves,” according to the article.
Councilmember D’Andre Jones, who also serves on the Black Heritage Preservation Commission, said he plans to soon introduce a resolution for the name change.
“I think it’s time to celebrate a different kind of history,” said Jones, who added that the time is ripe considering the council recently passed a new law celebrating Juneteenth, which recognizes the effective end of slavery in the U.S.
Plus, he said, the city has recently embarked on a series of improvements that will eventually highlight the street and provide more access to the downtown area for people who live in south Fayetteville.
“This is the perfect opportunity with all of the changes to the street and what’s happening with our city as we move forward and become more racially progressive,” Jones said. “I think the time is now.”
Jones called the proposal a bold move, but said it’s one that should resonate with Fayetteville residents who believe the change is long overdue.
“When I talk to people about this idea, they all say, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,'” Jones said. “Well they will believe it, because they will see it.”
The council’s next meeting is set for Tuesday, Aug. 16. Jones’ resolution is not currently on the agenda for that meeting, but could be added during this week’s agenda-setting session.