In the 18th century, the Royall House and Slave Quarters was home to the largest enslavers in Massachusetts and the enslaved Black women, men, and children, who made their lavish way of life possible. Today, the Royall House and Slave Quarters is a site of memory. The museum’s architecture, household items, archaeological artifacts, and public programs center the histories and lived experiences of enslaved people while bearing witness to intertwined stories of wealth, bondage, and contestations of freedom in Massachusetts.
Our Humanities for All initiative showcases the many ways higher ed-based public humanities projects can build mutually beneficial and enduring partnerships with community organizations and how community partners seek out higher education collaborators in turn. In this interview with Royall House and Slave Quarters Executive Director Kyera Singleton, Humanities for All Project Director Michelle May-Curry asks Singleton about the museum’s ongoing public humanities partnerships with universities in Massachusetts, including Tufts University, Harvard University, Boston University, and several others.
Michelle May-Curry: Your ongoing partnerships with Tufts and Harvard universities are working to draw out the entangled histories of slavery that underpin the university's founding. What have you been up to this past year?
Kyera Singleton: We currently have two different projects happening. The first project, which began before the pandemic, is with Tufts University through the African-American Trail Project, which is run by Drs. Kendra Fields and Kerri Greenidge. In this collaboration, we're working on unearthing more research about the lives of the enslaved Black women, men, and children, who once lived on the Royall estate also known as Ten Hills farm in the 18th century. Beyond studying the people who were once enslaved on our site, we hope this research allows us to understand the many different and substantial relationships between the enslaved and free black population in both Medford and Boston. We also know that the Royall family were not the only enslavers in town. So we hope this research begins an even larger conversation about slavery in Medford and inspires more research and local community involvement in the telling of these stories, which are often hidden in plainsight. As a group, we are not only thinking about how we tell these histories but also how we situate the physical landscape into the work that we do.
I’m also extremely excited by the work we are doing with The Harvard and The Legacy of Slavery Initiative. The Harvard and The Legacy of Slavery initiative, led by Dean Tomiko Brown-Nagin, is doing a lot of amazing work and research on Harvard's connection with slavery.
Our site has a direct connection with Harvard. Isaac Royall Jr. left land to the university and the proceeds were used to establish Harvard’s first professorship in law. The law school’s former seal even contained the three sheaves of wheat, which are found on the Royall family’s crest. We are excited to partner with the Initiative to bring a series of amazing programs that not only explore slavery in the North but how the legacies of enslavement impact Black communities and communities of color today.
We just did an amazing panel together about the history of redlining and housing inequality in Boston today. In July, we are collaborating on a program with Clint Hill Smith to think through the public memory of slavery today. We will continue creating great programming together throughout the next year. As a museum, our goal is to help communities reckon with both the history of slavery and the legacy of racism today. I am really proud to have these collaborations that allow us to both expand our knowledge about our own site and create programming that addresses the concerns of local communities.
As our relationship with The Harvard and The Legacy of Slavery initiative grows, we hope to work on new research together and provide students ample opportunities to intern on our site.
MMC: So the Royall House and Slave Quarters as a historic site is constantly collaborating with historians and with teachers and artists and community members to create programming, to connect with all types of publics. What have been some of the benefits for the Royall House and Slave Quarters of working in partnership with the university specifically?
KS: One of the most amazing benefits to come out of our many different collaborations with different universities is that we have so many support systems. Professors constantly bring their students on tours and highlight the work we do. When the pandemic hit, Dr. Ninian Stein, from Tufts, reached out to us and helped us secure the funding to film our virtual tour. Like many historic sites, we are constantly thinking about how to make both our physical site and its history extremely accessible and visible to a broad and diverse audience. We are always looking for new and intriguing ways to expand our audience and to create new opportunities for people to “visit” our site and engage with the stories we tell.
Research has been another major benefit of working in partnership with universities. For example, between 1999 and 2001, our site led an archeological dig, in conjunction with Boston University (BU), which led to some of the re-interpretation of the museum today. During the dig, we were able to unearth artifacts that allowed us to tell a more complex story about the lives of enslaved people on our site. We found milk pans and cream pots in the grounds closest to the Slave Quarters, which told us that the space also served as a dairy in addition to a sleeping space. We also found game pieces that were fashioned out of tiles and tobacco clay pipes in the gardens next to the Slave Quarters that were outside of the view of the main house. The artifacts from the archaeological dig have allowed us to tell a story about everyday acts of resistance.
We wouldn't have been able to do that without that partnership with BU. Our partnerships, both in the past and today, have allowed us to conduct new research, expand interpretation, and reach new audiences.
MMC: In the publicly engaged humanities world there are many types of community partnerships. Partnerships with nonprofits, with museums, with public libraries, archives, and community members and activist groups. And you as a historic site are charged with preserving and interpreting the enduring legacy of the Royall House and Slave Quarters. What do you think are some of the ways that you are well-positioned for partnership and collaboration across different types of institutions?
KS: That's a really good question. What better way to invest in your local community than to invest in local histories, to invest in the preservation of local museums, to invest in changing the narrative of how we talk about Northern slavery in Massachusetts?
I think the Royall House and Slave Quarters has this unique opportunity to have impactful conversations about our local communities and the public memory, or the lack thereof, of slavery. Also, the Royall family made part of their wealth from a sugarcane plantation in Antigua before moving to Massachusetts. As a result, our site can tell a story about local, national, and global histories of slavery in both the United States and the Carribean.
My board has done a lot of amazing work to center the lives of enslaved people, even before my arrival, so I think we, also, have a very unique story and process that can serve as a model for other institutions that are embarking on this work. With the said, we can still learn so much from so many institutions that are further along than us, which is exciting!
Beyond research, students have the opportunity to get on site and see what it takes to run a small historic museum on a daily basis. It’s all hands on deck all of the time! We are also building out our education program right now. And so what an amazing opportunity to partner with us. My goal is to make the Royall House and Slave Quarters one of the premier institutions to learn about slavery, and I want to build out curriculum and materials that teachers throughout the state of Massachusetts can use in their classrooms.
MMC: Okay, one final question. Community partnerships are never perfect and require a lot of accountability and mutual trust to move forward. What have been some of the challenges you have encountered along the way, and what advice might you give to university affiliates interested in publicly engaged humanities projects?
KS: Yeah, so I've been thinking a lot about this one. We can't do the work alone, right? We have to work together, which means that we have to respect one another and we have to listen to one another.
I think university partners have to acknowledge that this is a partnership and that research is happening together. Also, local community members have been doing this research for decades and their passion, their knowledge, and their contributions must be acknowledged. Materials are not flowing just one way from the university to the museum, but they're also flowing from the museum to the scholars and the students at the university. And I think museums have to realize that these partnerships can take the work that's already been done, to the next level and to help amplify our site, our mission, and our projects with critical resources.
Trust is the foundation to all of these partnerships and I think these partnerships work when all parties are able to articulate their needs, especially when it comes to the resources needed for sites to do the work they do with institutional partners. I’m lucky to say I have that in all of the partnerships we have established or in the process of establishing.
I think some hurdles that we've had have just been mostly in terms of capacity. There's a lot of work that everyone wants to do, but as a small institution we can't do everything at the same time. I’ve been learning to say “we’d love to do this but we can’t do this right now but in January this project will be perfect!” I think it's a good problem to have. There's an abundance of opportunities!
Visit the Royall House and Slave Quarters website to learn more about their ongoing work with universities, events in the community, and opportunities to partner.
Thumbnail image: Students from Boston University working on an archaeological dig on the grounds of the Royall House and Slave Quarters over the course of three summers in 1999-2001. Image courtesy of the Royall House and Slave Quarters.
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