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The Royall House & Slave Quarters: A Backgrounder of Slavery in Medford

Campus | September 30, 2019

History may remember it as a hub for the Abolitionist Movement, but New England must claim its violent history of slavery. While slavery in the South mostly consisted of large-scale plantation labor, the practice in the North often took the form of domestic servitude, due to the unique economic, social, and geographic conditions of the region. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, the three New England states with the largest proportion of slaves, had approximately one slave for every four white families by the mid-1700s.

Massachusetts was the first American colony to formally sanction human bondage. The state legalized slavery in its 1641 Body of Liberties, making slavery in the state more long-lived than in Georgia, which legalized the institution only in the 1750s. The Slave Census of 1754 notes that “there were in Medford 27male and seven female slaves and 15Free Blacks; total 49 blacks in Medford.” 

Medford was also home to the Royall family during the 18th century. Isaac Royall, Sr. was a prosperous merchant who amassed great wealth in Antigua in the early 1700s, running a sugar plantation and trading in slaves and rum. He moved to Medford with his family and 27 slaves in 1734, making the Royall Family the largest slaveholding family in the state

The Royall House and Slave Quarters still stand today, a short 12-minute walk from the Tufts campus. It is the only free-standing building of its kind north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The estate is large, lavish, and well-preserved, and daily tours allow visitors the chance to marvel at the Corinthian columns covered in carvings, extravagant four-poster beds and colorfully tiled fireplaces. 

When the estate was appraised in 1740, it was valued at a total of £87,000, making the owner one of the richest men in the Colonies. The excesses of the mansion and grounds draw a stark contrast with the Slave Quarters only several feet away. This intentional and highly visible separation in the use of space on the property reinforced the racial and class differences between its two populations. Today, it is a glaring reminder that the vestiges of inequality are all around us, if we just take the time to look for them. 

The lasting impact of Isaac Royall’s legacy on the greater Boston area extends far beyond the boundaries of his estate. It is most apparent in the large contribution he left for Harvard College in his will, specifically set aside for the establishment of Harvard Law School. As recently as 2016, the Harvard Law community has grappled with the legacy of their beneficiary. This has included fierce debate about the use of the Royall family crest in the Harvard Law School seal, and discussion about how best to acknowledge the inescapable link between the wealth Isaac Royall bestowed upon the College and the unrecognized labor of the human beings he owned. Ultimately, after forceful protests from students and administrators alike, the crest was removed from the law school seal. 

The subject of how best to confront institutional involvement in slavery has plagued many college campuses across the country in recent years, yet only a handful of predominantly religious institutions have moved past recognition of the legacy of slavery towards the more radical idea of reparations.

 The Wall Street Journal reported that “Religious institutions have often taken the lead in reparations for slavery, seeing it as fundamentally a moral question as well as an economic one.” The most notable example comes from Georgetown University and its quest to provide reparations for the descendants of the 272 slaves that were sold by the Jesuits in 1838 to save their college. 

Although the New England colonies would later become the hotbed of abolitionism in the 19th century, it was the slaves themselves who originally led the way in demanding redress from the government. A remarkable 1774 petition by a group of slaves addressed to the Massachusetts State Assembly declared “give and grant to us some part of unimproved land, belonging to the province, for a settlement.” 

In 1783, Belinda Sutton, a formerly enslaved woman at the Royall House, became the first to win reparations for her years in bondage. Belinda was persistent in her efforts for a pension and endured a history of missed payments, which forced her to renew her claim five times over the course of a decade. In her moving petition for reparations, Belinda wrote, “the face of your Petitioner is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the employment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.” 

Although little is known about the lives of the slaves who lived and labored in Medford, reminders of their struggles remain. On nearby Grove Street, a piece of a decorative wall that marked the entrance to the Brooks Estate still stands; it was built in 1765 by an enslaved man named Pomp. The Salem Street Burying Ground, the oldest cemetery in Medford, contains a large section that is believed to hold the remains of 50 enslaved people.

Tufts has remained largely isolated from broader discussions of reparations on college campuses and how best to engage with the legacy of slavery in the present day. In reality, the history of the Royall House and the slaves who inhabited it is as entwined with our institution’s history as is the legacy of P.T. Barnum and Jumbo. 

It is time for us as a community to stop treating reparations as a theoretical or purely academic discussion, and instead remember that if we ever feel disconnected from our past, the Royall House and Slave Quarters stand a stone’s throw away. The House and Quarters are an irrefutable reminder that we all have a role to play in alleviating the national moral debt of reparations that is long overdue.