I’ve said before that if I could do it all over again I would have pursued a career in public history and worked at a historic site. The deepest connections with- and opportunities to encourage careful thinking about the past has the best chance of taking hold on site. Having left the high school history classroom this past spring I am hoping to join a historic site in the Boston area in some capacity.
This morning I traveled to The Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, which is just a few miles north of downtown Boston. I’ve known about this site for some time, having read recent news coverage of their efforts on the interpretive front and in a very good book about the Royall family and slavery in New England by C.S. Manegold. I was met by Gracelaw Simmons, a longtime volunteer, who took me around the the Royall home and slave quarters, which is the only surviving structure of its kind in the northeast.
By the beginning of the American Revolution Isaac Royall, Jr. was one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts and one of the largest slaveholders. The family originated in Antigua as did many of their slaves who lived on the property. Royall remained a loyalist during the Revolution and eventually left Massachusetts for Nova Scotia and then England, where he died of smallpox in 1781.
As we walked through the home we talked quite a bit about the interpretive challenges that the Royall house presents. The staff works on a limited budget, but you get the sense that everyone is very optimistic about the future, especially given the growing interest in how the staff interprets slavery.. There is probably no better site in New England on which to address this subject.
Most of what can be characterized as a challenge I see as an interpretive opportunity. The story of Isaac Royall, Jr. is a window into the many perspectives on independence and the colonial relationship with England and king. And as for slavery, it goes without saying that its presence in the North at the time of the Revolution generally is difficult for many to grasp.
A visit to any historic site involves having to engage in some imaginative act. For me it was imagining looking down from the hill on which the Royall house is located to the surrounding 600 plus acres and a view that included the Mystic River and Boston’s church spires in the distance. I thought about the movement of slaves up the Mystic River from Antigua. I thought about Isaac looking out to Boston as the crisis with England escalated wondering what to do and his eventual decision to leave. I thought about Belinda leaving the home a free woman for Boston and her petition to the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the Royall family. I thought about the rest of the former slave population and the challenges they faced moving forward after their emancipation.
So many stories in one place to consider and attempt to understand in the broader context of American history.
During your next trip to Boston, make sure to include a visit to the Royall House. And for those of you in the Boston area who have an interest in local history, but have not yet visited, do yourself a favor and do so. You won’t be disappointed.
Thanks again to Gracelaw Simmons for her hospitality and to everyone else at the Royall House for their passion and hard work. It is very much appreciated.