Massachusetts Hall (Harvard University)

Harvard Yard, Cambridge`

A Living Wage banner frames tents in Harvard Yard, where supporters of students occupying Massachusetts Hall were camping out overnight, May 1, 2001. Staff photo by Jon Chase/Harvard News Office.

Twenty-five students exited Massachusetts Hall on May 8, 2001, to cheers and applause of two thousand people gathered outside. The students’ departure marked the end of a 21-day occupation of the university’s oldest extant building, within which is located the offices of Harvard’s president, The action was the culmination of a four-year campaign by Harvard’s Progressive Students Labor Movement (PSLM) to compel the university to pay its employees a living wage—one sufficient for workers to provide for their basic needs. At the time, a living wage in Cambridge was $10.25/hour, plus benefits; the federal minimum wage was $5.15. Harvard’s endowment was about $20 billion.

Although the sit-in divided students and faculty, large numbers of people within the Harvard community backed the PSLM and the workers. Within a week, hundreds began rallying outside Massachusetts Hall each day. A “tent city” was erected in front, with scores sleeping there nightly. Hundreds of Harvard faculty members signed a letter calling for a living wage and voicing support for the sit-in. And university janitors and custodians organized rallies. Meanwhile, high-profile figures visited the occupied building—including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and U.S Senator Ted Kennedy—and national media reported the story.

Eventually, working through intermediaries, the PSLM was able to gain important concessions, ones that allowed the university to save face. The resulting agreement led to the sit-in’s end. The accord promised the creation of a new committee, one headed by an economics professor, Lawrence Katz, and that included two union workers and two PSLM members, to study and make recommendations regarding the economic wellbeing of Harvard’s lowest-paid workers. The University also pledged to begin negotiations with the union of custodians for a new contract, and a moratorium on the outsourcing of Harvard positions (among other concessions).

The Katz Committee, as it came to be known, released its report in December 2001. While it did not back a living wage tied to inflation (and thus regular increases), it did recommend a one-time wage increase to $11.35 for the University’s lowest-paid workers and a parity policy to ensure that Harvard did not pay subcontracted workers less than what they paid those they directly employed. Writing in 2003, Greg Halpern estimated that the resulting changes in wages led to an annual redistribution of $3,738,000 from Harvard to more than one thousand employees.

Designed and built between 1718 and 1720, Massachusetts Hall has been the target of student activists over the last several decades. In 1972, for instance, Black students associated with the Pan-African Liberation Committee occupied offices in the building to protest the refusal of the Harvard Corporation (the University’s most powerful governing board) to sell its stock in Gulf Oil in light of the company’s involvement in Angola, at the time still a Portuguese colony. The students also demanded that Harvard issue “a public statement that it will not be involved in racist imperialist adventures in the future.” And during the Twenty-Teens students blockaded and occupied the building on various occasions to pressure the University to divest from fossil-fuel companies.

The second oldest, still-surviving academic building in the United States, Massachusetts Hall housed hundreds of George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War. Today, offices of Harvard’s top administrators occupy most of the first three floors; first-year students reside on the fourth.

Massachusetts Hall. Photo by Daderot, March 31, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard Station.

To learn more:

Victoria Baena, “A Decade Ago, Another Occupation,” The Harvard Crimson, December 1, 2011.

Robert Decherd, The CRIMSON Staff, and Daniel Swanson, “Black Students Seize Mass Hall,” The Harvard Crimson, April 20, 1972.

Shin Eu-jung, Verita$: Harvard’s Hidden History, Oakland: PM Press, 2015.

Greg Halpern, Harvard Works Because We Do, New York: The Quantuck Lane Press, 2003.

Benjamin McKean, “The Beginning of the End,” The Harvard Crimson, May 9, 2001.

Rachel Traughber, “A College, 98 Feet Long,” The Harvard Gazette, May 4, 2018.

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

Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory and Ohiri Field (Harvard University)

13 Frisbie Place, Cambridge, and 95 North Harvard Street, Allston

Beginning in 1941, research on incendiary weapons development took place in the Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge. The third-floor lab—”a glass-walled room-within-a-room” in the words of historian Robert Neer—was under the direction of Dr. Louis Fieser, a professor of organic chemistry. An official, top-secret project of the U.S. Department of War, Fieser’s work was listed as “Anonymous Research No. 4” in Harvard’s records.

Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory, 1929-1931. Credit: HUV 2329 (BP 51), Harvard University Archives.

The research was the offspring of what was a marriage of sorts between academia, the U.S. military, and weapons manufacturers brought about by the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). Established by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, the NDRC sought to enhance research on, and development of, military weaponry by building linkages between civilian researchers, the Pentagon, and industry. It was the brainchild of Vannever Bush, one of the founders of Raytheon (today Raytheon Technologies headquartered in Waltham*) and an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Bush designated James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard, as the head of “Division B,” which was responsible for bombs, fuels, gases, and chemical problems.

Soon after the NDRC’s founding, Harvard assigned Fieser two rooms in the basement of the Converse Chemistry Laboratory (at 12 Oxford Street) to conduct research on explosives. As the research of Fieser and his team progressed, it shifted from poison gas to incendiary gels, requiring a move to the nearby Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory.

On July 4, 1942, Fieser and his fellow researchers brought the fruits of their labor to the Harvard soccer field, near the university tennis courts and the Harvard Business School, across the Charles River in the Boston neighborhood of Allston. University workers had prepared the field, digging a circle 60 feet in diameter, which firefighters from the City of Cambridge proceeded to fill with water. Fieser and others then carefully placed a 70-pound bomb containing white phosphorous and 45 pounds of jellied gasoline on a metal stand in the middle of the shallow pond. After Fieser flipped a switch, “a spectacular, billowing, 2,100-degree-Fahrenheit cloud arose over the field,” writes Neer. “Napalm bombs had arrived in the world.”  

July 4, 1942, Harvard soccer field. The first outdoor test of napalm. Source: Harvard Magazine.

The success of the test reflected how Fieser and his team had invented not only napalm, but a way to scatter the gruesome substance over a wide area, while igniting it. Liquid and gel incendiary weapons have a long, even ancient, history. What makes napalm an especially effective (and terrifying) weapon is that it is sticky and it burns at an extremely high temperature.

Louis Fieser, April 1965, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Source: Public Domain.

The U.S. military used napalm to horrific effect in Japan during World War II and in the U.S. wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Pentagon also used the weapon during its invasion of Iraq in 2003. For such reasons, napalm is symbolic for many of the horrors of war and of U.S. military power in particular.

The Wolcott Gibbs Laboratory was constructed in 1911-1912. A couple of weeks before it opened, The Harvard Crimson described the building as “the most perfectly planned and equipped physical-chemical laboratory in the world.” Harvard demolished the facility in 1999 to allow for the construction of the Bauer Life Sciences Building, which now stands on the site.

As for the Harvard soccer field, it was renovated and named Ohiri Field in 1983. (It is unclear if Ohiri Field sits on the exact same site as the old soccer field, but, most likely, at the very least, it overlaps with it.) Until 2010, Ohiri Field served as the primary home field for the Harvard men’s and women’s soccer teams. Since the opening of a new stadium called Jordan Field, Ohiri Field has served as the secondary home for the two teams.

Ohiri Field (undated) with Harvard Stadium, which sits on the other side of North Harvard Street, in the background. Source: Harvard Athletics.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard station. Enter Frisbie Place (a walkway that is diagonally across from where Quincy Street intersects Kirkland ) at Kirkland Street. The part of Frisbie Place where Wolcott Gibbs Memorial Laboratory once stood is a now a combination of a courtyard and, at its northern end, the Bauer Life Sciences Building (0.4 miles, about an 8-minute walk.) From there, Ohiri Field is a one-mile (approximately 20-minute) walk. MBTA buses from Harvard Square also pass in front of Ohiri Field.

To learn more:

Anonymous, “Gibbs Laboratory Ready,” The Harvard Crimson, December 20, 1912.

Louis F. Fieser, The Scientific Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace, New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1964.

Robert M. Neer, Napalm: An American Biography, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013.

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


Thanks to the Harvard University Archives and to Baker Library Special Collections (Harvard Business School) for their assistance.

Somerset Club

42 Beacon Street, Beacon Hill

First established in 1826 as an informal group, what is today the Somerset Club became formalized as the Beacon Club sometime thereafter. In 1851, the club purchased a house at the corner of Beacon and Somerset Streets to serve as its home. Renamed the Somerset Club the following year, it is the oldest of Boston’s private clubs.

Original home of the Somerset Club, corner of Somerset and Beacon Streets, 1860. Photo by Josiah Johnson Hawes. Source: Arts Department, Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

In the years surrounding the Civil War, political tensions permeated the Somerset as many of its members were “Copperheads”—Democrats strongly opposed to abolitionism, the war and President Abraham Lincoln. This led to one of its members on the other side of the political divide to found the Union Club nearby (on 8 Park Street) in 1863.

Reflecting the Harvard ties of many elite social clubs, the Somerset is now located in what was the mansion of David Sears (Harvard class of 1807). The club purchased the property in 1871.

The Harvard Crimson newspaper has characterized the Somerset as “traditionally . . .  the haughtiest and most prestigious of clubs.” One does not to ask to join the Somerset, but rather one is asked. The club is so secretive that one needs to be a member to access its website.

Long associated with Boston Brahmins and WASPs—its members have included powerful Yankee politicians and businesspeople and deans from the area’s elite institutions of higher learning—the Somerset did not admit women until the late 1980s. While its membership still reflects “old money” and proper “pedigree,” the Somerset, like Boston’s private social clubs as a whole, is no longer at the center of the area’s pyramid of power. Given large political-economic shifts over the last several decades and the internationalization of Boston’s economy, the Somerset’s status is somewhat a relic of the past.

Somerset Club, 42 Beacon Street, March 2017. Photo by Eleni Macrakis.

Getting there:

Red or Green Line to Park Street Station. 0.3 mile (seven-minute) walk.

To learn more:

Samuel Hornblower, “Fifteen Minutes: The Old Boys’ Clubs,” The Harvard Crimson, April 27, 2000.

Alexander Whiteside Williams, A Social History of the Greater Boston Clubs, Barre, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1970.

W. E. B. Du Bois Residence

20 Flagg Street, Cambridge

W. E. B. DuBois, circa 1907. Public domain, Credit:

One of the great civil and human rights advocates of the 20th century and a major public intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois rented a room at this house from 1890 to 1893 while a graduate student at Harvard University. In 1895, he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Du Bois, a strong opponent of accommodationist approaches to race relations and an unwavering advocate of full civil rights for African Americans, was politically allied with Boston’s William Monroe Trotter.* Together, they helped to found, in 1905, the Niagara Movement, a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1910, Du Bois became the editor of the NAACP’s monthly magazine, The Crisis.

One of the founders of modern sociology, Du Bois was the author of Black Reconstruction in America (1935). His most famous work, among his many books, is The Souls of Black Folk. First published in 1903, it is a collection of essays on race, labor, and culture. In it, he famously decried “the problem of the color line” as “the problem of the Twentieth Century.”

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868, Du Bois was active in the Pan-Africanist movement. In 1961, he joined the U.S. Communist Party, and then moved to Accra, Ghana, where he died in 1963.

The house at 20 Flagg Street, part of the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail, has a historical marker about Du Bois in front of it. In the 1980s, Harvard sold the building. It is now a private home.

20 Flagg Street, 2017. Photo by Eleni Macrakis.

Getting there:

Red Line to Harvard Square Station. About a 0.6 mile (12-minute) walk via Mt. Auburn Street.

*Regarding William Monroe Trotter, see the site entry associated with his home in Dorchester in A People’s Guide to Greater Boston.