BOSTON — Across the Charles River from the heart of Boston’s iconic “Freedom Trail,” some of the founding fathers of Harvard and Tufts Universities amassed their wealth on the backs of slaves — after displacing Native Americans to build their campuses.
In recent months, both Harvard and Tufts have taken steps to address their ties to slavery. For the first time, Harvard took an official “pause” to commemorate “Juneteenth,” which marks the end of slavery in the US.
“It’s important to connect the reckoning with slavery to efforts by universities in recent years to study their relationship to slavery,” said Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin. “I am happy to be the chair of a Presidential initiative and a committee that is continuing to study Harvard University’s legacy with slavery; it is very important to do that.”
For Harvard, scrutiny of the Law School’s ties to slavery became widespread in 2016, when activists demanded that Harvard Law School “retire” its seal. The image was based on the crest of the Royall family, which owned more slaves than anyone in Massachusetts.
The following year, Harvard placed a plaque in the Law School plaza “in honor of the enslaved whose labor created wealth that made possible the founding of Harvard Law School.”
Archival research has yielded details about the slave-ownership of several Harvard founders. Among the Harvard men who owned slaves were firebrand Puritan minister Cotton Mather and John Hancock.
A few miles up Massachusetts Avenue at Tufts University, the student Community Union Senate passed a resolution calling on Tufts “to recognize that it stands on Massachusett and Wampanoag land.”
Tufts University’s leafy Walnut Hill neighborhood, according to an op-ed written by seven students, “was once one of the hills in a slave-holding estate called Ten Hills Plantation.”
According to the students, “Both Africans and Native Americas were enslaved in the colony of Massachusetts, and trade in Native American and African laborers made Massachusetts a driving force in the Atlantic slave trade.”
For several decades, Boston business leaders were involved in the “triangular trade” of slaves, sugarcane, and rum. More than 500 slave ships were built along the Mystic River, part of which could be viewed from Medford’s largest plantation, the Royall House, next to today’s Tufts University campus.
The Royall family of Medford
The Royall family owned a sugarcane plantation in Antigua, from which they brought 27 enslaved men and women up to their “Ten Hills Farm” in Massachusetts.
Although many documents about the Royall family exist, only the first names of the 60 slaves owned by the family during four decades were ever recorded. Among the slaves who moved with the family from Antigua were Abraham, Hagar, and Joseph.
Isaac Royall added many extensions to an existing “mansion house” once owned by another slaveholder, John Usher. The Royall crest — three bushels and the word “Veritas” — was stamped onto products consumed by friends who would stay at the ever-expanding complex for months at a time.
The Royall House’s slave quarters had three rooms for sleeping and storage. The building was called an “out kitchen” because one of its purposes was for slaves to cook inside during summer, sparing the family unwanted heat.
On the western side of the Royall House, where coaches arrived, the wooden siding was carved and painted to look like the stone of an English townhouse. The house’s dozens of windows contained “window seats” for the family to read or enjoy the sun in comfort.
The slave quarters building was constructed perpendicular to the house, in part so those looking out the eastern or western windows of the house did not have to see the dwelling. On the narrow side of the Royall House facing the slave quarters, only a few small windows were added to provide light.
The design spoke to “who was seen, who was not, and who controls that,” according to Penny Outlaw, co-president of the Royall House Association.
From ‘Desire’ to ‘Royallville’
The first slaves arrived in Boston on a ship called “Desire” in 1638. They were brought from Barbados and had been traded for Pequot Native Americans captured by English settlers.
Familiar with the land and nature’s cycle, Native Americans were forced to help settlers endure New England’s long, harsh winters. The same skills that made “Indians” good slaves for the settlers, however, also made them capable of escaping captivity and rejoining their people.
When Native Americans were captured by the settlers, they were often traded for African slaves in the West Indies. Boston banks helped lubricate the slave trade by providing loans to southern plantation owners, some of whom were educated at Harvard.
Work performed by the Royall’s slaves at the family’s self-labeled “Royallville” farm included making wool, tending livestock, and manufacturing cider. Other slaves made hundreds of candles each week to light the house. All of them were subject to “behavior codes” that ruled every aspect of their lives, from nightly curfews to marriage.
A key difference between slavery in New England and the south was that a plantation system never developed in the north. Few people owned more than one or two slaves, and they usually slept in the attic of the same house as their “master.” For these and other reasons, slavery was said to be move invisible in the north.
Through a new history seminar devoted to teaching about Harvard’s ties to slavery, the austere university’s students are forming their own conclusions about slavery in the region.
“Harvard has yet to apologize for or even address its perpetuation of slavery and scientific racism, and the fact that through these actions it has perpetuated the idea that black people should be seen as objects,” wrote Julie Ngauv in an op-ed about the seminar.
“Harvard, the name which grants credibility to all things upon which it is embossed, endorsed the erasure and destruction of black lives. The plaque [placed by the university about its ties to slavery] is a mere reminder of the lack of consideration Harvard devotes to such issues,” wrote Ngauv.
Harvard is also facing a lawsuit for allegedly “unlawfully possessing and profiting from” some of the oldest photos of slavery. The photos in question were taken by Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz in order “to prove a theory of white superiority.”
Since Agassiz’s death, several animal species, schools, and scientific medals were named in honor of him. Despite the professor’s notorious work bolstering “scientific racism,” there are still species being names for him, including this year’s new genus of pycnodont fish, “Agassazilia erfoundina.”
‘The peculiar institution’
The Royall family’s stay at “Royallville” in Massachusetts did not live to see the United States’ creation.
Isaac Royall Jr. had ties to Crown loyalists, and he fled Massachusetts with his family a few days before the Battle of Lexington in 1775. Going through Nova Scotia, the family made it safely to England.
By that time, an estimated three-quarters of New England’s trade was linked to slavery, ranging from the slave ships built along the Mystic River to the manufacture of rum, Medford’s top export. There were nearly 6,000 slaves in Massachusetts on the eve of the Revolution.
During the war, George Washington visited — but did not sleep in — the Royall House, which was used to quarter Continental Army officers. The house changed hands a number of times and was recognized as a heritage site early in the country’s history.
In Massachusetts, slavery was not ended until 1783. Far from a decisive ending, the “peculiar institution” was slowly eroded through a series of court cases in which slaves demanded their rights.
Two and a half centuries later, elite universities are being urged to make amends for the past. But no arrangement of the Royall House’s windows can hide generations of slaves upon whose forced labor the colleges were created.