FAYETTEVILLE — Beginning next summer, Archibald Yell Boulevard will be officially known as Nelson Hackett Boulevard.
The City Council on Tuesday voted 7-1 to rename the street in honor Hackett, an enslaved man who fled Fayetteville in 1841 in search of freedom.
The proposal was brought forward by city’s Black Heritage Preservation Commission, a newly formed group tasked in part with investigating important struggles and achievements of local Black residents and making recommendations to the council on how to honor those individuals.
Hackett’s 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. His 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 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 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.
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.
Yell’s history considered
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 the street.
“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.
The formal resolution was first discussed at the Sept. 6 City Council meeting.
At the time, 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 was asked to table the resolution to allow more time for consideration. The council agreed.
When the discussion resumed Tuesday, city staff said they’d since reached out to property owners along the street to inform them of the proposed name change. Britin Bostick, the city’s long-range planner, said some people requested the city help pay for their costs to change materials with the new name and others asked for the change to take place with a delay similar to how 6th Street was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in 2009, but didn’t become official until 2010.
Some people asked that the council take more time to think about the decision and accept more public comment.
Councilmember D’Andre Jones said continuing to delay a vote undermines the months of work that has been put in by the Black Heritage Preservation Commission and all the public meetings the group held where public comment was welcomed. He said if the council doesn’t trust the work of the commission that it formed, then why even have the commission in the first place?
Jones said he understands the logistical concerns of some of the property owners, and suggested amending the resolution to delay the name change until June 19, 2023 to give business owners and residents time to prepare for the change. The date is also known as Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. That amendment passed 8-0.
Councilmember Sloan Scroggin suggested reimbursing property owners on Archibald Yell Boulevard for expenses related to the renaming of the street. Councilmember Sonia Harvey said she had an address on 6th Street when it was changed to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and she was not given any money to update her business materials. Harvey said the council should be careful not to set a precedent for paying for name changes. Others agreed, so Scroggin did not formally propose an amendment.
Public comment and the final vote
During public comment, five Fayetteville residents spoke in favor of the proposal and one person from Fort Smith spoke against. The person who was against said Nelson Hackett should have a street named after him, but it should not replace Archibald Yell’s name because it would be erasing history and could lead to more streets or buildings being renamed if the council doesn’t like their individual histories. He suggested renaming another street for Hackett, possibly an intersecting street because of the two men’s intersecting history.
Councilmember Sarah Bunch said as a longtime Fayetteville resident, she doesn’t understand the idea that a street name change would be erasing history. Archibald Yell, she said, has a marker in south Fayetteville, he has a prominent gravesite and his history is taught in local schools.
Bunch said the council tasked the Black Heritage Preservation Commission to investigate issues like the one proposed, and their recommendations should be taken seriously. She said when people ask “where does this stop?” a more appropriate question the council should be asking is “where do we start?”
Councilmember Teresa Turk said the issue has been a struggle for her. In some ways, she said, it’s been good to learn more about Nelson Hackett, but the proposal has divided some people in the community. Turk said she hopes the city can adopt an alternate method to honor people that doesn’t replace one name with another, possibly by creating a process for adding honorary street names.
Bunch said when a community has division and people become uncomfortable, that’s when growth happens.
“I’m glad we had this conversation,” said Bunch. “Archibald Yell is widely commemorated in Fayetteville, but Nelson Hackett is not.”
During the final decision, the council voted 7-1 with Councilmember Mike Wiederkehr voting against. Before the vote, Wiederkehr said he felt the issue became too divisive with its all-or-nothing component, and he didn’t appreciate some of Jones’ suggestions that if the public wanted more opportunities to weigh in on the decision then they should’ve attended the Black Heritage Preservation Commission’s meetings.