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The History of Slavery in Medford: Featuring The Medford Historical Society and Museum

By Kristen Bosse

When it comes to slavery, the story that New England has long told makes it seem as though slavery started in the South, and ended in the North. The North was the hero of the Civil War. We didn't have many slaves and those that we did enslave were taught to read, brought into our homes, and practically treated like family. This is a common opinion among residents of New England, which stems back to what they were taught growing up in this school system. However, it might be a bit far from the truth. Although the North did fight for the freedom of slaves, we still participated in our share of slave brutality before we reached this epiphany.

A tragic example of this brutality is depicted in Goodell's book "The Trial and Execution, For Petit Treason, of Mark and Phillis, Slaves of Capt. John Codman". Goodell shares the story of slave Mark Codman, who decided to poison his abusive master along with two fellow female slaves. Although he was successful in his endeavor, he was caught and found guilty before a jury. His punishment? Codman was hung, tarred, and suspended in the middle of town by metal chains for more than twenty years. The funny thing is, most would assume this incident took place in the Deep South. It actually took place in Somerville, MA, with exhibits showcasing this event all over Greater Boston. The truth is that if you look back far enough, the brutality of slavery can be seen in each part of the United States, even in New England.

Take a drive down the road from Somerville and you will hit Medford, another town where the presence of slaves is evident. Most of this evidence can be seen on the grounds of the Isaac Royall House on George Street. The Royall House is known as being the only surviving slave quarters in Massachusetts. In order to gain some accurate information about the origins of slavery in Medford, we turned to the Medford Historical Society and Museum. The website itself is great, providing collections of Civil War photos and even Slave Trade letters. Their "From Africa to Medford" section gives some info on the untold story of the Royall family.

The house came into the possession of the Royall family in 1739, following the death of Isaac Royall Jr.'s father. When the Royalls took up residence on the estate, they brought with them at least 27 enslaved Africans. Little is written about the slaves at the Royall House, but a number of artifacts from an archeology excavation are on display in the Royall House slave quarters building.

Although most of their days were spent working in the main house or on the fields, recreation or relaxation time was evident from tobacco pipes and game pieces found in the quarters. These finds bring a great sense of humanity to what I can only assume was brutal conditions for the slaves kept there. Other artifacts, pictured below, show some evidence of magic, religion, or medicine utilized in slave life. It is of course unknown of the original purpose of the item, but it certainly appears to have been carved purposely, perhaps for protection physically or spiritually.

In 1896, a number of prominent citizens formed the Medford Historical Society. John Anderson, President of MHSM, further explained their involvement in this preservation.
"The Medford Historical Society and Museum has worked for over 100 years to preserve documents and artifacts, publish articles about our history, and reach out to the public to promote a sense of community through a shared understanding of our rich past. We recently added "and Museum" to our name because we are the leading resource for Medford history that's accessible to the general public."

A few years later, the Royall House was threatened with demolition in order to make way for a housing development project. Medford citizens rose to this challenge, saving the house. In 1906, the Royall House Association was formed with the purpose of preserving the house and remaining land as a museum.

As the fight to end slavery developed, Medford had two very prominent Abolitionists. George L Stearns, a wealthy Medford industrialist met with John Brown around January 1857 and was believed to have supplied some of the weapons for John Brown's raid in Harpers Ferry. Stearns fled the country briefly after the raid, fearing prosecution but was soon able to return. Lydia Maria Child, famous as the author of the poem "Over the River and Through the Wood" was also an advocate for women's rights and Abolition.

As the site of a building inhabited by enslaved Africans in the eighteenth century as well as the home of prominent abolitionists in the nineteenth century, Medford is connected to both the beginning and end of slavery in America.

Nowadays, the mansion house and its quarters are watched over by the Royall House and Slave Quarters organization. Visitors can walk the halls of the colonial Royall House and its slave quarters on guided tours. The grounds surrounding the property include remnants of the gardens that once surrounded the property. You can even see some of the artifacts mentioned before on display in the slave quarters. The property is open for tours seasonally or by special arrangement. The Medford Historical Society and Museum, at 10 Governors Avenue is open Sunday afternoons and displays artifacts of Lydia Maria Child and has information regarding Medford's role in Abolitionism.

After taking a visit over to the grounds and taking in the culture, residents will hopefully get a better understanding of the reality of slavery in New England. Although we did have a major part in abolishing slavery, we still did our part in fueling its existence. Both organizations, the Royall House and the Medford Historical Society, document the truth for anyone who doubts the presence of slaves in Massachusetts. They have, and will continue to play an active role in the preservation of not only the artifacts, but the untold story of slave life in Medford.

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Kristen has written impressive content including press releases and feature stories...

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