Journal Archive > 2002 > April

Partners in an exhibition

The untold story of the Royall House slaves

Belinda was an African slave, snatched from her parents at age 12 and brought in chains along with 300 others across the Atlantic.

For the next 50 years, she toiled for her master—until the war came and the master fled, leaving Belinda and her sickly daughter to fend for themselves in a world that had no place for an elderly black woman and her child.

The story of the slaves who lived in the Royall House Slave Quarters in Medford is the focus of a new exhibition developed by students at Tufts and Medford residents.

Belinda's story didn't take place in the antebellum South. It happened in colonial Massachusetts. The grand house where Belinda's master lived, with the slave quarters just a stone's throw away, was in Medford, less than a mile from where Tufts University now stands.

The grand Georgian house and its slave quarters—the only remaining free-standing slave housing north of the Mason-Dixon line—still exist. Known as the Royall House, named for the family who once lived there, the buildings at 15 George St. are now owned by the Royall House Association.

On April 17, an exhibition, "From Africa to Medford: The Untold Story of the Royall House Slaves," will open, chronicling the experiences of Belinda and her fellow slaves—the world of servitude in which they lived, the Africa from which they had come and the events that would change the world for their descendants.

The force behind the exhibition is a diverse group of Tufts students and Medford residents. The students are enrolled in "Memories of the Slave Trade," a course taught by Rosalind Shaw, associate professor of anthropology.

'A special place'
"The Royall House Slave Quarters is a very special place on our doorstep," Shaw said. The exhibit "should be about the slaves who lived and worked here, who they were, what they and other slaves and free blacks in Medford achieved, so we can get a sense of them as people."

The community members include representatives of the Royall House Association, including Medford High School history teacher Jay Griffin, who is co-teaching the Tufts course with Shaw; Medford High School students and members of Medford's African American community. Griffin is president of the Medford Historical Society and site administrator for the Royall House.

The existence of the Royall House Slave Quarters belies the idea that slavery was a specifically southern phenomenon. During the 17th and 18th centuries, port cities such as Boston and Medford were active in the Atlantic slave trade, and many prominent families in the Massachusetts Bay Colony owned slaves.

"In New England, there has been enormous social amnesia about the role of the slave trade and the presence of slaves," said Shaw, whose latest book is Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone (University of Chicago Press, 2002).

"In the North, everyone denies the fact that there may have been involvement in the slave trade," said Barbara Bailey, one of the community advisers to the class. "We can't ignore it. We need to find out what the truth is. In school, we heard it was always in the South. People up here have been glad to ignore it."

"Massachusetts has always trumpeted that it was the first state to abolish slavery," Griffin said. But, it was also the first colony to legalize slavery. And unenslaved blacks were not at liberty in the Bay Colony. Laws specifically restricted the movement of all people of color, and free blacks could be kidnapped in ports like Boston and sold as slaves.

"You were never really free," said Shaw. "You could, at any moment, be taken."

Even after the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, African Americans did not enjoy the same civil liberties as white citizens, Shaw said. Laws were instituted about the control of "unruly people of color." For example, blacks were often prohibited from being outdoors after 9 p.m.

Historic moment
Isaac Royall, an Englishman, arrived in Medford from Antigua with his 27 slaves in 1737. He fled to Nova Scotia at the start of the Revolution, leaving his slaves behind and prompting a unique episode in early American history.

In 1783, eight years after Royall's departure—and the same year that Massachusetts outlawed slavery—Belinda, presumably with the help of a prominent black abolitionist named Prince Hall, drafted a petition to the Commonwealth requesting a pension from the remaining assets of the Royall estate.

"She makes the argument that the wealth of her former owner was accumulated partly by her hands," Shaw said. "She asks the state to acknowledge that the [owner's] wealth was derived from the slaves he owned. She asks that the ideals of the Revolution, of freedom and equality, apply to all the people in the world—not only to whites."

It was an unheard-of action for the time. But the court granted the petition, providing a pension for Belinda and her daughter. "This is perhaps the earliest example of reparations for the slave trade and slavery," Shaw said.

The text of the petition, which has survived, also offers extraordinary detail about Belinda's capture near the banks of the "Rio de Valta" in present-day Ghana; her fear and anguish at being taken from her parents and the agonizing Middle Passage. She recalls the moment she was snatched:

"Could the Tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from tortured Parental affection, have blunted the keen edge of Avarice, she might have been rescued from Agony…in vain she lifted her supplicating voice…She was ravished from the bosom of her Country, from the arms of her friends—while the advanced age of her Parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!"

Community partnership
The goal of the exhibit is to be true to the life and spirit of Belinda and the other Royall House slaves. The student organizers are taking a multimedia approach. Not only will visitors be able to see photographs and artifacts associated with slavery in Medford, and hear African music and drumming, true to the region from which Belinda came, and recorded voices speaking in both African languages and African English.

Tufts students in the course "Memories of the Slave Trade," taught by Rosalind Shaw, far right, and Jay Griffin, seated next to Shaw, work on the exhibition. © Mark Morelli

One of the community advisers for the course is Pamela Goncalves, who has portrayed Belinda at historical reenactments. Goncalves leads The Colored Ladies, a theater troupe that specializes in historic character portrayals of ordinary women and men of color.

"This is an important part of history that needs to be talked about and not swept under the rug," Goncalves said. "There are wonderful spirits around here. This building should be embracing Belinda Royall." Goncalves will portray Belinda during the exhibit's opening reception.

At the beginning of the semester, Shaw and Griffin's students developed an analytical framework for the study of social memory and of the historical events associated with the Royall House, northern slavery and free people of color. The second phase was to develop a vision for the exhibit—what subjects would be covered, which artifacts would be included, how they would be presented.

The community advisers were particularly important at this stage, Shaw said. "This is a community partnership course," she said. "It's not just our vision of this particular history."

Of concern to the community advisers, in addition to the content of the exhibit, was how to attract visitors. Some African Americans, for instance, have avoided the Slave Quarters because of the emotional pain it evokes, said Carol Rickenbacker, a Medford teacher.

"We need to spread a positive word," she said. "We need to bring people from all over, bring everybody in the community."

Exhibit opening
The exhibit's opening reception will take place April 17, from 4 to 7 p.m. Beverly Morgan-Welch, executive director of the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston, will give the opening address, and The Colored Ladies will give a reenactment performance. There is no cost to attend the reception.

The Royall House Slave Quarters is located at 15 George St., Medford. The exhibit will remain on display through September 29, Wednesdays and Sundays, from 2 to 5 p.m. For information, call (781) 396-9032.

Funding for the exhibit came from the Tufts Arts & Engineering Diversity Fund, the University College of Citizenship and Public Service, the Provost's office, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Royall House Association.