Council holds decision on renaming Archibald Yell Boulevard

Traffic passes along Archibald Yell Boulevard near Block Avenue on Aug. 8, 2022. (Todd Gill/Fayetteville Flyer)

FAYETTEVILLE — It will be at least another two weeks before a decision is made on whether to rename Archibald Yell Boulevard.

City Council members on Tuesday tabled a resolution to change the name of the road to honor Nelson Hackett, an enslaved man who fled Fayetteville in 1841 in search of freedom. The discussion will continue on Sept. 20.

The proposal was brought forward by city’s Black Heritage Preservation Commission in an effort to honor Hackett, whose attempted escape from slavery 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. 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.

Before the renaming was discussed Tuesday, the council voted 8-0 to approve a separate resolution to memorialize Hackett with an historical marker on the downtown square where he once labored as a personal servant at a grocery store south of where the Bank of Fayetteville stands today.

Past talk of a name change

It wasn’t the first time the street name change was mentioned during a council meeting.

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.

An alternate proposal

Before the meeting, Councilmember Mike Wiederkehr proposed an alternative name of “Henderson Boulevard” in honor of Ebeneazor Henderson and his daughter Clara Henderson. The two were the founders and teachers of the Henderson School, which was the first publicly funded school in Arkansas. The school was located near the intersection of Olive Avenue and Sutton Street in Fayetteville. It was organized to teach the sons and daughters of African-American residents, many who had been recently emancipated during the Civil War.

In a letter to the city attorney, Wiederkehr said that Archibald Yell Boulevard transitions from School Avenue to College Avenue, and it would be logical and appropriate to join the two academically named streets with a nod to the Henderson School.

JL Jennings, chair of the Black heritage commission, said naming the road after Hackett is an important step in telling Hackett’s complete story. Given the two (Yell and Hackett) men’s intertwined histories, Jennings said renaming the street in honor of Hackett is the most appropriate choice.

Wiederkehr said his alternative proposal to name the street Henderson Boulevard is not to disrespect Hackett, but to highlight Fayetteville as an education center of Arkansas. He said the Henderson School was used as a rationale for Fayetteville being the chosen location of the state’s flagship university.

Councilmember D’Andre Jones, who also serves on the heritage commission, said there are numerous African-Americans in Fayetteville’s history that were first in their positions and as such are deserving of being honored in the same way that the Henderson’s are. However, the commission, he said, didn’t want to slight any of those people, so it chose to take a different approach to honor someone with a unique legacy.

Bunch agreed with Jones, and said Hackett’s struggle had an international effect and she would prefer to keep the conversation centered around Nelson Hackett Boulevard.

Public comment

During public comment, three people spoke in favor of the proposal and two were against.

Marilyn Heifner, president of the Fayetteville Evergreen Cemetery Association where Archibald Yell is buried, said Yell is a well-respected figure. She said Yell always endorsed equality, and that stand cost him the governorship of Arkansas in his first political bid. Heifner said Yell’s action to sign extradition papers for Hackett was his legal duty after Hackett’s conviction in county court. She said if the council votes to rename the road, she hopes they will consider naming another street in Fayetteville after Yell.

Resident Bob Stafford said Archibald Yell Boulevard has long served as a dividing line that separates Fayetteville’s low-income residents from the rest of the city. He said now is the time to rename the road considering the city has recently begun a series of improvements that will eventually provide more access for people who live south of the street.

Decision to table

Councilmember Mark Kinion said some merchants and residents who live on Archibald Yell Boulevard have told him they feel left out of the discussion by not being notified of a possible name change. He said he’s been asked to table the resolution to allow more time for consideration.

Councilmember Sarah Bunch said she also would like to hold the item until the next meeting if only to allow people with an address on Archibald Yell Boulevard a chance to weigh in.

“I think this street renaming has merit, but there might be an opportunity to better educate people that has been missed,” Bunch said. “I think we should hold it for two weeks, let these people have their say and then we’ll make a decision.”

The council voted 8-0 to table the resolution until Sept. 20.