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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tufts’ connection to slavery, Part 4: How community stakeholders are addressing the legacy of slavery

Harvard_Law_School_Library_in_Langdell_Hall_at_night-min-scaled
The Harvard Law School library in Langdell Hall is pictured.

The initiatives to address Tufts’ connections to slavery are broad and growing in strength. As previous and current Tufts students contribute to conversations and scholarship surrounding Tufts’ connections to slavery, community stakeholders outside of Tufts are not only continuing to address this history but seeking ways to improve public knowledge of it.

One community stakeholder that provides education on local slavery history is the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Mass. Purchased by Isaac Royall Sr. in 1732 and inherited by Isaac Royall Jr. in 1739, the Royall House and Slave Quarters was the locus of the Medford slave economy until slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783. Enslaved people were forced to labor in tasks including wool and cider production, along with other agricultural work. The Royall House and Slave Quarters has been made into a museum that serves as a critical resource to examine the lives of the enslaved people who lived there and how they fit into broader conversations surrounding the legacy of slavery. 

The museum works with Tufts historians on initiatives to research the history of enslaved people at the property. Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters, outlined her hopes for future collaboration with Tufts beyond the existing research.

“I think that not only is it about doing the research and getting Tufts students involved, getting Tufts students on site … but also offering internships,” Singleton said. “There [are] a lot of different collaborations that I can see happening between the Royall House and Slave Quarters and Tufts.”

Alexandra Chan, an archaeologist and former visiting assistant professor at Vassar College, worked as a project director for the Royall House and Slave Quarters in the early 2000s. Chan wrote her 2015 book, “Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm,” based on archaeological work she conducted at the site. 

Chan discussed how she got started writing her book through a class she took as a graduate student at Boston University: Archaeological Ethics and the Law taught by Professor Ricardo Elia.

“[Elia] mentioned the Royall House … and I was just utterly shocked that I could be in graduate school and have grown up in the Northeast, and not [have] known that there was slavery in New England,” Chan said. “I overcame my natural inhibitions and introversion to go straight up to Professor Elia at the end of class. … I started as a member of the crew the first year, and then I took over the direction of the project the second and third years as I made it my Ph.D. project.”

Chan formulated the research design and excavation plans, examining over 65,000 artifacts for the project. Since the Royall House and Slave Quarters is a museum and open for public events, the team had to use particular methodology to conduct their archaeological work. 

“We couldn’t just strip back all of the soil and look at everything that’s under the ground, so we had to come up with a plan that would help us systematically and representatively test what was underneath,” Chan said. “Remote sensing techniques were key; we used ground penetrating radar, and resistivity. … After the remote sensing, we created a grid pattern … and decided to put one square meter excavation units at set intervals to get our bearings and see what might come up.”

The work conducted by community leaders like Singleton and Chan is central to conversations that attempt to reconcile the long-term consequences of slavery on social, economic and political systems. Their work forms a basis upon which institutions of higher education are also starting to examine their own connections to slavery and its generational impacts.

Harvard University is one such institution. Harvard’s 29th president, Lawrence Bacow, established the Presidential Committee on Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery in 2019 to study Harvard’s relationship to slavery. The initiative was led by Harvard faculty members, who were tasked with studying how slavery made racism deeply institutionalized at Harvard. The committee released its report, “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery,” in 2022 with support from the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

Annette Gordon-Reed, Carl M. Loeb university professor at Harvard, served on the committee. As a distinguished Harvard historian, Gordon-Reed has won 16 book prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2009 for “The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family,” which made national headlines for its revelations of Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with an enslaved woman named Sally Hemings.

Gordon-Reed spoke to how she got involved in the committee and her general reaction to its findings.

“I was asked to be on the committee by [Bacow],” Gordon-Reed said. “I found out much more about slavery in New England than I knew before. … I didn’t know how close ties were between Boston and the West Indies, so it was eye-opening for me. Most of my work is about Virginia and the South, or Texas. This was a chance to see something that I had been studying in another context in the setting of New England.”

One key figure Gordon-Reed emphasized in Harvard’s connection to slavery was Royall Jr. — one of the more prominent slave owners in New England in the 18th century, who maintained intimate relationships with not only the Tufts family but also with Harvard University.

Gordon-Reed detailed how Royall Jr. became embedded at Harvard.

“[Royall Jr.’s] family was based in Antigua, and [with] the money that he got from his sugar plantations, he gave a request to create a professorship at Harvard,” Gordon-Reed said. “The first law professorship at Harvard came from money from the Royall family, and we traced the beginnings of the [Harvard Law School] to that.” 

The Committee’s report outlines how Harvard’s connections to slavery with Royall and other slave-owning families cemented systemic racism at the institution. Chapter 4 of the report details how the legacy of slavery fomented a culture of scientific racism at Harvard Medical School and throughout the institution. According to the report, by 1850 the medical school “had become a focal point of scientific theories and practices rooted in racial hierarchy, racial exclusion, and discrimination at the University.” This commitment to race science enabled faculty members to support the eugenics movement that promoted the creation of a perfected human race that excluded minority populations deemed to be inferior.

Gordon-Reed discussed how the emergence of race science was a manifestation of the long-term implications of slavery.

“[The report] talks about all of Harvard’s connections to racist eugenics,” Gordon-Reed said. “If you think about slavery as helping to create and maintain a racial hierarchy, it is not a surprise that these kinds of things would be a feature of life at Harvard as well.”

Harvard is not the only higher-education institution near Tufts that is reconciling with its history of slavery. At the inaugural event for the Slavery, Colonialism, and Their Legacies at Tufts project on April 12, Craig Wilder, the MIT Barton L. Weller professor of history, gave the annual Coit-Phelps Lecture and talked about the broader connections between higher education and slavery. Wilder is the author of “Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” which was published in 2013 and examined how slavery laid the foundation for American higher education.

Wilder reflected on the work that MIT faculty and students are undertaking to understand the history of slavery at MIT.

“Part of the reason that we have partnerships at MIT is to keep our students in conversation with students on other campuses,” Wilder said. “Student activism has kept this conversation alive. On [campuses], it has been undergraduate research and graduate student research that has been the beginning of a lot of what we do.”

Wilder further discussed how he got involved in his 2013 book project through the research students have conducted.

“When I was working on the book when I went to Princeton [University] to do research for the first time ... I went into the archives,” Wilder said. “When [I looked through] all the family history collections, presidents’ papers and all, I realized that a young woman [at Princeton] ... wrote her senior thesis on slavery in the town of Princeton. So I got it and I sat there for half a day, taking extraordinary notes. [So] it has been undergraduate research … transforming these institutions.”

These larger conversations on the relationships between higher education and slavery can enable a better understanding of Tufts’ own connections to slavery. The contributions made by community members, Tufts faculty and students build off each other to create a collective understanding of how slavery is entrenched in the history of local institutions.

Singleton spoke about the optimism with which she views this work.

“I’m always optimistic about doing historical and archival research because we do not know everything,” Singleton said. “We’re always going to have encounters in the archives that push us to think deeper, that push us to think broader. … I hope that whatever work I start then lays the foundation for someone else to take it somewhere. … To me, that’s the best part of doing this work: not only adding to the historiography, but also opening up pathways for people to continue to do this work … and to ask new questions.”