Massachusetts has a long and proud history of nurturing the freedom of African Americans. Today visitors can walk a famed black-history trail on Beacon Hill as well as three others around the state, tour museums of African American history, and see the 1868 birthplace of celebrated civil-rights leader and NAACP co-founder W. E. B. Du Bois in Great Barrington. And yet, tucked down a side street in the Boston suburb of Medford, the Royall House and Slave Quarters offers an alternative look into an earlier era of racial inequality.
Built in the 1730s with profits from the Antiguan sugar trade, this three-story Georgian home and surrounding 504-acre farm estate overlooking the Mystic River was the lavish proof-of-wealth for Loyalist Bay State native Isaac Royall. With ornamental gardens, separate east and west façades, elaborate interior carvings, and Delft tilework, the house has long been treasured for its Colonial-era splendor, which spared it from drastic remodeling or destruction. More than just a tour of another historic house, however, a visit to the Royall residence uncovers yet a third façade, arguably the heart of the estate: its adjacent slave quarters.
Although many New Englanders today think of slavery as a Southern institution, in reality the “triangle trade” of sugar, rum, and slavery brought thousands of enslaved Africans and Afro-Indians to the Northeast. In Medford, just 35 feet from the wealth and finery of the Royall house, a wood and brick structure—enclosing work and sleeping spaces and a summer kitchen—housed some of the more than 60 enslaved Africans who resided on the site over the family’s 40-year residence. Though little was written about their lives, their tasks likely included raising livestock, cider and wool production, and domestic duties.
Early tours of the property (which became a museum in 1908 run by the Royall House Association, and later an official National Historic Landmark) focused primarily on the Royalls, but in recent years a shift in its mission reflects a fuller story. Today, the emphasis is on exploring the idea of freedom in the context of a wealthy Loyalist household supported by enslaved Africans. In striving for accuracy, the museum has converted one second-floor room in the main house to its original purpose as a “kitchen chamber,” where slaves worked and slept. And in 1999, an archaeological dig on the site, in collaboration with Boston University, uncovered a trove of household items—most notably proof of slave culture in the form of gaming pieces and clay tobacco pipes. These artifacts, many of which are on display, help to further illustrate the proximity of the estate’s two populations as they went about their daily lives.
While the Colonial-era existence of Northern slavery is a shameful truth, the museum, as the only recognized example of freestanding slave quaters remaining in the North, embraces its role as an opportunity for education. Thanks to funding such as a $100,000 grant from Cummings Foundation, more school programs focusing on Northern Colonial slavery are in development, proving that although you can’t change the past, you can at least (at last) give it a powerful voice.
15 George St., Medford, MA. Open for weekend tours May 17–October 26, 2014, and throughout the year for special public programs. 781-396-9032; royallhouse.org