Massachusetts has been a bastion for freedom, liberty, and equality for almost four centuries. From the Mayflower’s arrival in 1620 through the twenty-first century and her distinction of being the first American state to recognize marriages for same-sex couples, Massachusetts has been a leader in recognizing the rights of people (even if it sometimes took awhile to recognize them).
When thinking of slavery in the United States, most Americans’ thoughts focus on the South in the years leading up to the Civil War. But slavery was part of the American experience even in the North, including the great bastion of Massachusetts. But that history has been forgotten with the focus on the nineteenth century ante-bellum South.
Isaac Royall rose from an average family in late-seventeenth-century Dorchester to become a very wealthy and powerful eighteenth-century merchant. In 1732 he brought his wife and two surviving children to the town of Medford, where he purchased a 500-acre estate with an ordinary farmhouse. Over the next five years he worked with his brother to convert the home into a three-story Georgian mansion, with a carriage house, stable, out kitchen, and several barns.
Isaac started his career as a merchant mariner. At the age of 28 he started a sugar cane plantation on Antigua. He then built a fortune in the trade of sugar — and slaves. When they moved into the Medford mansion, the Royalls brought with them at least 27 enslaved African men and women. Isaac died in 1739, and the estate passed to his children.
More than a century ago, the estate was turned into a museum, honoring the Royalls, who were Loyalists during the American Revolution. But over the last few years board members Peter Gittleman and Julia Royall (an eighth-generation descendant of Isaac) have reshaped the mission and focus of the museum. The mission statement is now:
“The Royall House Association explores the meanings of freedom and independence before, during, and since the American Revolution, in the context of wealthy Loyalists and enslaved Africans.”
A great deal of documentary research has been conducted on the family and the property. The board received grants to research the property, the family, and the slaves. The website provides access to much of this documentary research, and does an excellent job of documenting it.
The slave quarters are likely the largest surviving freestanding such quarters in the northern United States. In addition to the documentary research, the board authorized archeological digs that have brought to light new artifacts from the family and its slaves.
It is not often that a museum experiences such a focus change. It is heartening to see it shine a new light on a period that has for too long been forgotten. If you live in New England, it is a wonderful place to visit. And if you don’t, then visit the website at www.royallhouse.org to find out more about the Royalls and their slaves.