A handful of Harvard undergraduates gathered recently before a plain white sign.
“This is one of the most important panels in the museum,” Kyera Singleton, executive director of the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, told the group.
Two students leaned in closer, squinting over rows of type. Nan. Ruth. House Peter. Forten Howard. Cuff …
“These are the Black women, men, and children who we know were enslaved by the Royalls over a 40-year period,” Singleton explained. “You can Google any member of the Royall family and find all you need to know about them. However, we cannot do the same thing with the enslaved people on this plantation.”
At least 60 people were enslaved at this site a few miles north of Harvard’s Cambridge campus, making the property’s 18th-century owners the largest slaveholding family in all of Massachusetts. Singleton, hired in 2020, makes it her mission to remember the lives represented by that sign. “We’re doing this work to make sure we know their names, and we say their names as much as if not more than the Royalls’,” she said in an interview.
Harvard Law School pledged $500,000 this year in support of the Royall House and Slave Quarters’ mission. Also announced was a University-wide commitment to working closer with the museum on research and learning experiences. Community partnerships are central to Harvard’s educational mission, said Social Science Dean Lawrence D. Bobo, who is also the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences. “But this one has the additional layer of speaking to issues attached to the Harvard Legacy of Slavery project.”
The first phase of that project, outlined in a report released last year, meant uncovering Harvard’s ties to slavery and the long history of racial oppression on campus that followed. Isaac Royall Jr., who died in 1781, bequeathed land to Harvard College, and its proceeds were used to establish the school’s first professorship in law. In 1936, the Royall family crest was even incorporated into the Law School’s official shield, which was used continuously until 2016.
Now in its second phase, the Legacy of Slavery project has turned its focus to reckoning and repair. Recommendations include honoring enslaved people through memorialization, research, and curricula. “Partnering with Royall House and Slave Quarters represents one of the early ways Harvard is living up to commitments expressed in the report,” Bobo said.