FAYETTEVILLE — The city council member sponsoring a move to rename Boulevard Archibald Yell says the move aims to shed light on a largely untold story of local history.
Council members will on Tuesday consider renaming half-mile-long Archibald Yell Boulevard to Nelson Hackett Boulevard. The measure is sponsored by D’Andre Jones, one of the representatives for the southern part of the city. Archibald Yell Boulevard winds from its intersection with Rock Street and College Avenue southwest to South School Avenue, which connects to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on the south.
As a separate measure, the council could also authorize the placement of a marker in the town center square to commemorate Hackett.
The council will consider both proposals for the first time on Tuesday.
Nelson Hacket’s Story
Hackett was a slave who fled Fayetteville on horseback in July 1841 in search of freedom, according to Michael Pierce, associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas. Pierce directs the Nelson Hackett Project, a program to spread Hackett’s story across the state through his website and speaking engagements.
Hackett traveled 360 miles through Missouri, a slave state, and another 600 miles through free states before reaching Canada, then under British rule. Britain had abolished slavery throughout its empire, including its North American colonies, in 1834.
Alfred Wallace, the man who claimed to possess Hackett, followed Hackett and demanded his arrest and extradition. Wallace accused Hackett of stealing the horse, $500, and other property.
Yell, then governor of Arkansas, wrote a letter to the colonial governor of Canada asking for Hackett’s return. The request was granted.
Hackett was brought back to Fayetteville in the summer of 1842. He was repeatedly publicly flogged, tortured, and sold into slavery in Texas, according to Pierce’s research. He escaped again and his fate remains unknown.
Abolitionists lobbied the British government to stop Hackett’s extradition. They feared the extradition would set a precedent because no slave who had escaped to Canada had ever been returned to the United States. Slave owners could have used charges of theft or other offenses to reclaim slaves. The British government subsequently enacted laws preventing such extradition, Pierce’s research found.
Wallace owned a grocery store south of where the Bank of Fayetteville is in the downtown plaza. Hackett worked there. The original building burned down during the Civil War.
If approved, a historical marker telling Hackett’s story would go to the city-owned flower bed at Center Street and Block Avenue.
Simply putting a marker on the square wouldn’t do Hackett’s story justice, Jones said. Naming a street after Hackett, especially a street currently named after the governor who sought the extradition, would be an intentional act of acknowledging the struggle that people of color have experienced in the city, Jones said.
“When you look at Nelson Hackett and you look at the years of slavery, you’ll see that we’re just asking for a little piece. We’re just asking for our humanity to be recognized,” said Jones, who is black. . “Archibald Yell will always be known as the Governor. His legacy will remain.”
Recommendations for the marker and the street renaming came from the city’s Black Heritage Preservation Commission, a resident-led advisory committee to the city council.
The story in context
The story of the street itself has significance. The streets in the southern part of the city were laid out in a grid, according to aerial photographs from the 1940s. The street was built in 1953 and is named after Yell. The nomination came at the suggestion of Walter J. Lemke, founder of the University of Arkansas Department of Journalism and organizer of the Washington County Historical Society.
Historians widely consider Yell a “founding father” of Fayetteville. He practiced law in the city and owned much of the land south of Fayetteville. History indicates that he owned slaves. He died in 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War and is buried in historic Evergreen Cemetery.
Settlement of street-separated neighborhoods in the southeast part of the city from nearby downtown, Jones said. Many of the city’s low-income residents and people of color live south and east of the street. Street location likely played a role in the composition of neighborhoods, he said.
Archibald Yell Boulevard, with its four lanes of traffic and winding path, is a dangerous stretch that people try to cross on foot or on bikes, Jones said. According to a map from the Arkansas Department of Transportation, about 17,000 cars travel the half-mile stretch each day.
The city is in the midst of a project to repave Archibald Yell Boulevard, redesign the intersection with Rock Street and College Avenue, and reduce traffic to three lanes. Crews will also install a traffic light at South Street and add crosswalks.
Jones said the time had come for the name change so residents could get used to all the changes on the street at once. Eight commercial properties have addresses on Archibald Yell Boulevard, said Britin Bostick, long-range planner for the city. City employees did not contact the owners directly to inform them of the proposed change.
Alex Cogbill, owner of Local Color Studio Gallery on the north side of Archibald Yell Boulevard, said it’s high time for the city to right a past wrong. The street has historically served as a literal barrier between downtown and neighborhoods to the southeast, and the proposed name change is deliberate, he said.
Cogbill and his family live on South Washington Avenue, southeast of Archibald Yell Boulevard, and frequently walk between the house and the studio. Crossing the street is a challenge, and Cogbill said he saw many other people struggling to cross on foot or on bicycles.
He researched Nelson Hackett once he heard of the proposed name change and supports the move. He said he was aware of the controversial name changes. Cogbill grew up in Fort Smith and went to Southside High School, known for years as the Rebels. In 2015, the Fort Smith School Board removed the Rebels name and fight song “Dixie”, replacing the sports team names with the Mavericks.
“It has to happen everywhere. It has to be this reverse intention, this idea of ’OK, let’s move on and try to build community together as much as possible,'” he said. “There will always be scars there. If we can try to do everything we can to smooth out everything we can, then we have to do it. It has to happen, collectively.”
Changing his business address would be simple and inexpensive, Cogbill said.
“Business cards are cheap,” he said. “Let’s move on.”
The Washington County Historical Society has no official position on the proposed name change. Dustin Seaton, senior vice-chairman of the group’s board, said it’s always beneficial for a community to discuss and reflect on its history.
Seaton applauded the effort to bring Hackett’s story to the forefront of public debate. There are also practical considerations, he said. Businesses whose addresses would change need to be brought into the conversation, he said.
There is a certain line to be drawn when renaming streets and places, although Seaton said he doesn’t know where to draw that line. George Washington, after whom Washington County is named, was the first president of the United States and also a slave owner. There’s a balance to be struck, and these are the types of conversations that need to take place in a public forum, Seaton said.
“When we look at history in general, it’s very easy to look at it from a 21st century perspective,” he said. “Having this conversation and putting things into context is definitely appropriate.”