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Royall House and Slave Quarters: Medford’s Dirty Past

Off Campus | October 24, 2010

Driving down George Street, just past the gym, and on your way to I-93 you may have noticed a particularly large house accompanied by an expansive manicured lawn and a wrought-iron fence. What you may not have noticed is the smaller half-brick, half clapboard building that lies behind it. Constructed between 1732-1739, this building is the last remaining slave quarters in the northern United States and the mansion it accompanies is one of the finest 18th century homes surviving in New England. Both the buildings and grounds, collectively known as the Royall House and Slave Quarters after the Royall family who originally owned the property, are a National Historic Landmark.

After being told by my wilderness leader (3 long years ago) that this house served as inspiration for the song “To Grandmother’s House We Go,” I decided to finally pay a visit. As it turns out, Grandmother’s house is on nearby South Street. Instead, what I discovered was a piece of living history that opened my eyes to the truth about slavery in New England.

When I was told that the small building I was standing in was the last remaining slave quarters in the north, I was shocked. How could such an important building be virtually unheard of and why are people more familiar with “Grandmother’s House”?  Many think of slavery as a system practiced largely on southern plantations. However, not only did slavery exist in the North, it existed right here in Medford, and it was far from benign. In fact, the Tufts family is known to have had slaves around this same time!

After the Royalls moved from Antigua to Medford in 1732, along with 27 of their slaves, they occupied the house until the Loyalist family fled prior to the American Revolution. The Patriots used the property during the Revolution, and General George Washington himself helped to plan the siege of Boston there. Legend has it that he interrogated two British soldiers in the mansion’s Marble Chamber. The Fletcher and Tidd families then occupied the property until the Daughters of the American Revolution purchased it in 1898.

With the mission of exploring the “meanings of freedom and independence before, during and since the American Revolution, in the context of a household of wealthy Loyalists and enslaved Africans,” the Royall House Association, which now owns the property, does just that through tours and public lectures. Inside the Slave Quarters, one can find remnants of its former occupants’ lives, which were uncovered in a full-scale archeological dig from 1999-2001. Spoons, marbles, petitions for freedom, and other pieces from the past brings to life a piece of our history many shy away from. Unfortunately, much more is known about the white occupants of the property; however, the story of Belinda, one of the Royall’s slaves who petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for a pension, is even more impressive in light of the lack of information about individual slaves associated with the family. Although this may not be a typical destination for a relaxing time away from Tufts, it a short stroll from the gym and a definite must before graduation.