A little over a month ago, I posted some of my own reactions to participating in the Slave Dwelling Project’s overnight at the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford.
Now, as the year draws to a close, The Slave Dwelling Project has posted a great 2014 wrap-up including descriptions of the many sites that Joe McGill, the project’s founder and leader, visited.
Below is a response to the Royall House and Slave Quarters overnight by Jenny Allison, a Tufts undergraduate who also participated.
“Okay, everybody ready? Turn your lights off.”
The darkness is absolute. Everyone in the room falls silent; our breaths are raggedy from the cold scratching at our throats. The only illumination is a hazy purple-ish color, seeping in from the neighbor’s porch lights.
“The family who lived here wouldn’t have even had this amount of light,” Gracelaw, one of my companions, mentions. “They had no neighbors. It was just their family for 500 square acres.”
If anyone would know, Gracelaw would. She serves on the volunteer board of the Royall House, a preserved colonial estate and corresponding slave quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. The estate is a working museum; local area residents can visit and learn about the Royall family, who inhabited the mansion over multiple generations.
But at night, the rooms are cold and dark. No electric lights cast illumination over the sparse wooden furniture. In the small kitchen, our flashlights gleam eerily over rows of identical engraved silver plates. In the pale reflected light, I stare at the boxy wooden table and wonder who might have sat there on other cold nights, staring at a candle or speaking in hushed tones.
“The slaves were here every night long after their masters had retired to bed,” Gracelaw continues. “They were always the last to go to bed and the first to rise.” She gestures to a meager pile of what looks like scratchy cotton pillows, lumped haphazardly in one corner. “One or two might have even slept in here.”
My breath steams in the light of my headlamp, and I wonder how people were able to sleep when it was so chilly every night. After all, I am here, at least in part, to commemorate their experience: I am here to honor the hundreds of slaves who slept every night in these very spaces. And I do mean hundreds—the Royall family documented roughly 500 slaves in their possession over the course of a few decades.
In the slave quarters themselves, there is electric light and heat; our actual sleeping experience is quite comfortable. Lying in the darkness, surrounded by the quiet breathing of a handful of other Tufts students and our adult companions, I do not feel distressed. Though the history below my sleeping bag is sobering, it is difficult to feel agitated when so many people surround me. Being able to share a heavy experience with even one companion lightens its burden. Part of this makes me hopeful—hopeful that slaves were able to find true comfort in their enslaved companions, their families, their children. There is power in sharing, especially when it comes to pain, and that power should not be overlooked.
As I stare up into the blackness, trying to make out the ceiling, I marvel at how significant my experience would be to someone descended from slaves. For as captivating, and as meaningful, as this space is to me, it is more personally meaningful to somebody else.
My thoughts on this matter naturally shift to musings about the importance—perhaps even the cultural necessity—of historical space. Knowing a history, a personal story, is one step, but being in a place where such a thing really happened feels different entirely. The cold and the darkness make the experience more real than objects in glass cases ever could.
My fingertips are cold. I wonder how slaves slept to keep warm—curled up in a little ball?
And what about people who do not have such spaces? What of Native Americans who cannot return to well-preserved dwellings and connect to their ancestors that way? How can they preserve their history in an equally compelling and meaningful way? I do not know.
The questions swirl in my brain—and I know deep down that we may never find their answers. But we do know how to ensure that we keep asking these questions—we do it by doing what we are doing, by doing what Joe McGill is doing. We bring attention to these spaces, and we interact with them, and we revive them and fill them with our energy, creating a sort of bond arcing back through the centuries to touch the people who were enslaved here so many years ago.
And as I lie there, curled in a little ball, my eyes sinking shut, I do truly feel as if I have gained insight tonight. Because even though I will never be able to know what it really felt like to go to bed each night a slave, I can begin somewhere.
We have begun here.
Tufts University 2017