Yell to Hackett? Proposal would change street name to honor enslaved man rather than former governor who had him returned

Traffic passes Thursday along Archibald Yell Boulevard past Block Avenue in Fayetteville. The City Council on Tuesday will consider renaming Archibald Yell Boulevard to Nelson Hackett Boulevard. Hackett escaped slavery to Canada in 1841, but was the first and only person extradited back to the United States, prompting the British government to make extradition of those fleeing slavery to Canada nearly impossible. Visit for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The City Council member sponsoring a measure to rename Archibald Yell Boulevard says the move is meant to shed light on a largely untold story in local history.

Council members Tuesday will consider renaming the 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 town. Archibald Yell Boulevard winds from its intersection with Rock Street and College Avenue southwest to South School Avenue, which connects south to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

In a separate measure, the council also might authorize placing a marker on the downtown square to commemorate Hackett.

The council will consider both proposals for the first time Tuesday.

Nelson Hackett's story

Hackett was an enslaved man who fled Fayetteville on horseback in July 1841 seeking freedom, according to Michael Pierce, associate history professor at the University of Arkansas. Pierce heads the Nelson Hackett Project, a program aiming to make Hackett's story widely known across the state through its website and lectures.

Hackett traveled 360 miles through Missouri, a slave state, and another 600 miles through free states before reaching Canada, which was under British rule at the time. Britain had abolished slavery throughout its empire, including its colonies in North America, by 1834.

Alfred Wallace, the man who claimed to own Hackett, tracked Hackett and demanded his arrest and extradition. Wallace accused Hackett of stealing the horse, $500 and other goods.

Yell, who served as Arkansas governor at the time, wrote a letter to the colonial governor of Canada requesting Hackett be returned. The request was granted.

Hackett was brought back to Fayetteville in summer 1842. He was publicly whipped several times, tortured and sold back into slavery in Texas, according to Pierce's research. He escaped again, and his fate remains unknown.

Abolitionists pressured the British government to stop Hackett's extradition. They feared the extradition would set a precedent because no enslaved person who escaped to Canada had ever been sent back to the United States. Slave owners could have used accusations of theft or other offenses to reclaim enslaved people. The British government subsequently made laws preventing such extradition, according to Pierce's research.

Wallace owned a grocery store south of where the Bank of Fayetteville sits at the downtown square. Hackett labored there. The original building burned down during the Civil War.

If approved, a historical marker telling Hackett's story would go in 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 one presently named after the governor who requested the extradition, would serve as an intentional act acknowledging the struggle people of color in the city have experienced, Jones said.

"When you look at Nelson Hackett, and you look at the years of slavery, you'll see we're just asking for a small piece. We're just asking for our humanity to be acknowledged," said Jones, who is Black. "Archibald Yell will still be known as the governor. His legacy will remain."

The recommendations for the marker and renaming the street came out of the city's Black Heritage Preservation Commission, a resident-led advisory panel to the City Council.

History, in context

The history of the street itself has significance. Streets in the southern part of town were laid out in a grid, according to aerial photographs from the 1940s. The street was built in 1953 and named after Yell. The naming 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 largely consider Yell a "founding father" of Fayetteville. He practiced law in the city and owned much of the land in south Fayetteville. History indicates he owned slaves. He died in 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War and is buried at the historic Evergreen Cemetery.

Installation of the street separated neighborhoods on the southeast part of town from nearby downtown, Jones said. Many of the city's lower-income residents and people of color live south and east of the street. The street's placement likely had a role in the makeup of neighborhoods, he said.

Archibald Yell Boulevard, with its four lanes of traffic and winding path, is a dangerous stretch for people to try to cross on foot or by bicycle, Jones said. About 17,000 cars travel on the half-mile stretch every day, according to an Arkansas Department of Transportation map.

The city is in the middle of a project to repave Archibald Yell Boulevard, overhaul the intersection with Rock Street and College Avenue and reduce traffic to three lanes. Crews also will install a traffic signal at South Street and add pedestrian crossings.

Jones said the time is ripe for the name change so residents can 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 haven't directly reached out to property owners to notify them of the proposed change.

Other perspectives

Alex Cogbill, owner of Local Color Studio Gallery on the north side of Archibald Yell Boulevard, said he feels it's high time for the city to right a wrong of the past. The street historically has served as a literal barrier between downtown and neighborhoods to the southeast, and the proposed name change is purposeful, he said.

Cogbill and his family live on South Washington Avenue, southeast of Archibald Yell Boulevard, and frequently walk between home and the studio. Crossing the street is a challenge, and Cogbill said he's seen plenty of other people struggle to make their way across on foot or bike.

He researched Nelson Hackett once he heard about the proposed name change and supports the move. He said he's familiar with controversial name changes. Cogbill grew up in Fort Smith and went to Southside High School, which for years was known as the Rebels. The Fort Smith School Board in 2015 nixed the Rebels name and "Dixie" fight song, replacing the athletic team names to the Mavericks.

"It's got to happen all over. It's got to be this reversed intention, this idea of, 'OK, let's move on and try to create a community together as much as we can,'" he said. "There are always going to be scars there. If we can try to do anything possible to smooth anything over that we can, then we have to do it. It's got to happen, collectively."

Changing the address of his business would be simple and inexpensive, Cogbill said.

"Business cards are cheap," he said. "Let's move on."

The Washington County Historical Society doesn't have an official position on the proposed renaming. Dustin Seaton, first vice president for 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 discussion. There are also practical considerations, he said. Businesses whose addresses would change need to be brought into the conversation, he said.

There's a certain line to draw with renaming streets and places, although Seaton said he didn't know where to draw that line. George Washington, for whom Washington County is named, was the first president of the United States and also a slave owner. There is a balance to strike, and these are the kinds of conversations that need to happen 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 prospective," he said. "Having that conversation and putting things in context is definitely appropriate."

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