by Kyera Singleton, Executive Director of Royall House & Slave Quarters
In a “Small Needful Fact”, Ross Gay, an award-winning Black poet, reminds us of Garner’s time working for New York City’s Horticultural Department. In the poem, he moves us away from only focusing on the violence of Garner’s murder at the hands of a police officer to think about the violence of not knowing Garner beyond that moment. He ponders about the flowers that Garner planted and the work they continue to do for us after his murder by a police officer in New York City in 2014. He writes:
“to do what such plants do, like house/
and feed small and necessary creatures/
Like being pleasant to touch and smell/
into food, like making it easier/
for us to breathe”
When thinking about the legacy of slavery in the North, I want to begin by thinking about the violence of forgetting, the violence of not seeing. The legacy of slavery is all around us. It manifests in our built environments, the land we walk, the monuments on display, the institutions we teach in, and for me, quite literally in the museum I lead.
Although slavery existed in Massachusetts and in the North more generally, we often celebrate and talk about the North’s legacy of abolitionism. Yet, slavery was an important part of Northern society.
Scholar Wendy Warren, author of New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America estimates that by the “1670s, more than half of the ships in Boston’s harbor were going to and from the West Indies.” Also, we know that in the 17th century, white colonists enslaved and stole land from indigenous populations. The food grown, the livestock raised, and the wood harvested on some of this land was used to support sugar plantations in the West Indies.
This is important because I think people look at the region as a whole and say, well there weren’t that many enslaved people here, but numbers often obscure truth. Scholars such as Jared Hardesty, author of Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England, shows that while enslaved people made up 4% of New England’s population, in Boston the enslaved population hovered around 12%. If we were to go to neighboring Rhode Island, enslaved people accounted for over 25% of the population of the course of the long 18th century.
Thus, slavery was important to New England’s economy. Furthermore, it doesn’t matter if there was one person enslaved or a thousand, their lives mattered. The wealth enslaved people generated for this country and for families like the Royalls, while enduring the brutal and dehumanizing system of enslavement, should also never be forgotten.
In the new edited collection, To Make Their Own Way in the World: The Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes, I loved the conversation between world renowned artist Carrie Mae Weems, and scholar Deborah Willis, about creating “nuanced images of blackness.” Weems says, “Social justice stems from examining the complexity of lived lives.” These words really resonated with me. I see the work that I do and the history that I am committed to telling as a social justice project. And while understanding demographics are important, we know these numbers do not always tell a complete story. So how do you tell a complex story?
At the Royall House and Slave Quarters, we know that some 60 people were enslaved by the Royall family. While we know their names thanks to archival records, we don’t have a significant amount of information about who they were, their families, their beliefs, or how they felt. In order to get to interiority, we have uncovered objects from an archaeological dig such as game pieces fashioned from tile or tobacco smoking pipes to begin to tell a complex story about how enslaved people experienced leisure or made a life for themselves amidst the violation of slavery.
These objects have helped us to reinterpret the site and to think through hard questions of agency and resistance and to center the lives of those who were enslaved. Questions that not so long ago going back to the 90s were considered taboo in our museum. However, one cannot talk about the beautiful colonial mansion of the Royall family without talking about the people who built it and the indigenous land it sits upon.
In 2005, when the Board changed the title from the Royall House to the Royall House and Slave Quarters, it was to ensure that people understood that slavery was central to our museum’s history and that people didn’t only come to the site to learn about the elegant and wealthy Royalls.
We cannot admire the beautiful home and forget about the human cost of the architecture. We must ask ourselves always: who built that furniture, who tended to the land, who planted t he trees and flowers, who cut the wood, who were the blacksmiths, who cooked the food, and who made shoes and mended the clothing? More importantly, whose history has been forgotten, destroyed, or relegated to the sidelines in order to perpetuate the myth that slavery didn’t exist in our very own backyards?
As attitudes shifted about slavery in the North, there were countless Black people, enslaved and free, who were at the forefront of freedom movements. At our museum, we know the most about Belinda Sutton, who was once enslaved by the Royall family. After the death of Isaac Royall, Jr., Belinda Sutton claimed her freedom and then petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for a pension from the Royall estate in 1783. Although this happened in the 18th century, we can situate her in a long history of Black people challenging slavery in the courts, defining freedom on their own terms, demanding reparations, and leading the way in dismantling the peculiar institution.
Thus, since arriving at the Royall House and Slave Quarters, it is important for me to remind people that it is a site of memory. Although we may never know more than a name, we still must remember!
Brown, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016.
Hardesty, Jared. Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019.
Willis, Deborah. “In Conversation with Carrie Mae Weems.” In To Make Their Own Way in the World: the Enduring Legacy of the Zealy Daguerreotypes, edited by Ilisa Barbash, Molly Rogers, Deborah Willis, pp. 395-405. Cambridge: Peabody Museum Press, 2020.