15 GEORGE STREET
Standing in the middle of a modern residential neighborhood in suburban Boston is an eighteenth-century Georgian mansion. These are not an uncommon site in New England, a region that embraces its history with placards, tourist attractions, and historic homes. Yet, the house at 15 George Street in Medford stands out—even by New England standards.
Well, not the house specifically but rather the building that stands in front, between the house and George Street. It is unique. Too many windows and not quite large enough to be a barn, its central chimney suggests a different purpose: a dwelling place for people. But why would a mansion, already three stories tall with many bedrooms, require additional living space?
This address was the home of the Royall family. Isaac Royall Sr. purchased the property, which included a two-story dwelling house and five hundred acres of surrounding land in 1732. Over the next five years, he remodeled and added on to the house extensively, transforming it into the mansion that still stands there today. He also had the unusual outbuilding constructed. Upon Isaac Sr.’s death in 1739, the property passed to his son Isaac Royall Jr.
The mansion house gives away much about the man who had it built. Adorned with a golden pineapple doorknocker and surrounded by a wall likewise adorned with pineapples, this home paid homage to the tropics. Although Isaac Sr. was born in Massachusetts, he had spent much of his life in the British West Indian colony of Antigua. There, Royall dealt in sugar, rum, and slaves. Eventually, after a devastating hurricane, pestilence, and a slave conspiracy struck the island, Royall decided to take his family and fortune back to New England.
Royall did not leave all his property behind in Antigua, however. Dwelling in that unusual outbuilding at 15 George Street were many of the twenty-two enslaved men and women Royall brought with him from the Caribbean. That building was a slave quarters. These men and women, most of them born in Africa, were trafficked by Royall to make his new country estate a success. Ripped from their homes for a second time, the people living in that outbuilding worked Royall’s farm, kept his house, and took care of his family. And they created a life of their own, demonstrated by the many artifacts they left behind.
The slave quarters standing at 15 George Street is the only freestanding slave quarters north of the Mason-Dixon Line still existing in the United States. Certainly there are many slave quarters in the South and Caribbean, but suburban Boston? This building suggests a different history of New England, one that is not only littered with Puritans and patriots but also enslaved Africans and Indians.
The slave quarters at 15 George Street opens a whole world of slavery in New England. It was deeply connected, culturally, socially, and economically, to slavery in the Caribbean. Enslaved men and women in New England clung to their cultures while crafting their own identities in the region. Dramatically outnumbered by the white population, they resisted slavery not through outright rebellion but through small challenges to the status quo.
And they demanded their labors and their struggles be recognized by the community. No resident of 15 George Street demonstrates this better than Belinda Sutton, a woman who lived under Isaac Sr. and Isaac Jr.’s tyranny. Years after being kidnapped and trafficked away from Africa, Sutton found her freedom. Her enslaver, Isaac Jr., was a loyalist and fled during the American Revolution. Although Royall freed Sutton in his will, she had already struck out on her own when the revolutionary commonwealth of Massachusetts seized the Royall estate.
And yet, Sutton struggled under freedom. She moved to Boston and worked menial jobs to support herself and her disabled daughter Prine. In 1783, she acted. With the help of free black activist Prince Hall, she filed a petition with the state government demanding payment from the seized Royall estate. Sutton reasoned that her labor had been stolen by the Royalls for five decades and that she was entitled to “one morsel” of the family’s “immense wealth,” which had been partially “accumulated by her own industry.” The legislature agreed, granted Sutton’s request, and awarded her an annual pension of fifteen pounds, twelve shillings to be paid out of Royall’s estate. She would later file four more petitions asking for further compensation. In short, Sutton demanded— and received— reparations for her years of bondage.
Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds tells the story of people like Belinda Sutton. Although slaves comprised only about 4 percent of New England’s population on the eve of the American Revolution, this number does not reveal the importance of slavery to the region. Indeed, when looking at New England’s cities, such as Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, the percentage of slaves grows dramatically, to 12 and 25 percent, respectively. By the 1740s nearly one in four Boston households owned slaves. Likewise, in those towns, slave labor was vital to a number of industries, such as distilling and shipbuilding, and if historians do not account for slaves, the relative economic success and growth of these places in the long eighteenth century (1689– 1815) cannot be explained.
Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England is now available from University of Massachusetts Press. There will be a round table discussion about the book on 10.15 at the Old North Church in Boston, and Jared Hardesty will read from his book at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford on 10.17.