Royall House and Slave Quarters

15 George Street, Medford

The Royall House, 1920. Photo by Leon H. Abdalian. Source: Leon Abdalian Collection, Arts Department, Boston Public Library, via Digital Commonwealth.

Consisting of two residential buildings, the Royall House and Slave Quarters are what remain of the huge eighteenth-century estate owned by Isaac Royall, Sr. (1677-1739). Royall purchased the 500-acre property, a larger version of which had been previously known as Ten Hills Farm*, in 1732. Later that same year, Royall and his family moved into a what had been an already large house, one that he had had expanded. Royall also oversaw the construction of a large outbuilding to house the twenty-seven enslaved people he brought with him from his sugar plantation in Antigua.

The Africans enslaved by the Royall family in Medford (at the time part of Charlestown) engaged largely in domestic and agricultural work. Their labor enabled the gentlemanly lifestyle of Isaac Royall Jr., his lively civic engagement, and his entertaining of the Massachusetts ruling class. Royall Jr. served on the Governor’s Council and on the Board of Overseers of Harvard College.

The presence of slaves on the Royall estate reflects the fact that Greater Boston was an important center of slavery. In the 1740s, in what was then the Town of Boston, for example, there were more than 1,600 enslaved people—between 10 and 15 percent of the overall population, according to historian Jared Hardesty—many of whom were highly skilled and thus central to the area’s economy. This translated into about one out of every four Boston households having slaves.

Most enslaved people in the Boston area lived in the homes of their “owners.” In this regard, the Royall family, with its separate quarters for their enslaved workers, was exceptional.

Slave Quarters, July 2015. Photo by Joseph Nevins.

Royall Jr.’s suspected Loyalist sympathies saw him flee Massachusetts during the American Revolution and live out his life in London. He bequeathed a portion of the proceeds from his original fortune and from land speculation in western Massachusetts to Harvard University. These funds helped to establish Harvard Law School.

In October 2015, a dynamic student movement inspired by the South African and British #RhodesMustFall activism emerged at Harvard Law School. Organized under the name “Royall Must Fall,” the students argued that the school’s seal, which contained the crest of the Royall family, endorsed a slaveholding legacy. The students’ efforts resulted in the Law School announcing, in March 2016, that it would drop the seal and replace it with a new one.

Once home to the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts and the individuals they held in bondage, the Royall House and Slave Quarters, the latter being the only such remaining structure in the northern United States**, is now a museum. The museum seeks to educate its visitors about both the Royall family and the struggles of the Africans whose enslavement helped to create the family’s fortune. In addition, the museum seeks to highlight how the legacies of slavery inform systemic inequalities in the present. It is open to the public for tours on weekends from May through October.

Getting there:

The site is a half-hour (1.3 mile) walk from the Red Line’s Davis Square station; MBTA bus lines also have stops nearby.

Nearby points of interest:

Tufts University, 419 Boston Avenue, Medford.

To learn more:

Daniel R. Coquilette and Bruce A. Kimball, On the Battlefield of Merit: Harvard Law School, the First Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Andrew M. Duerhen and Claire E. Parker, “Corporation Accepts Proposal to Change law School Seal, The Harvard Crimson, March 15, 2016.

Jared Ross Hardesty, Unfreedom: Slavery and Dependence in Eighteenth-Century Boston, New York: New York University Press, 2016.

Elise Lemire, Black Walden: Slavery and Its Aftermath in Concord, Massachusetts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

C. S. Manegold, Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Royall House and Slave Quarters website.

*Regarding Ten Hills Farm, see the site entry in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.

** There are indications that suggest that an outbuilding associated with the Shirley-Eustis House in Roxbury was also a slave quarters.

Royall House and Slave Quarters, July 2015. Photo by Joseph Nevins

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