On Saturday, the city of Medford unveiled a stone memorial for the dozens of enslaved people buried in unmarked graves in the Salem Street Burying Ground, some of them more than two and a half centuries ago.
Third grade teacher Michael Coates, of Brooks Elementary School in West Medford, was writing a local history book in 2016 when he stumbled across records in Medford of enslaved African people, many of them enslaved by the largest slaveholding family in 18th century Massachusetts, the Royalls. Those enslaved people made the Royalls' lavish lifestyle in their Medford mansion on 500 acres possible.
Coates told Medford students in an after school program what he had found, and worked with them to secure funding to pay for the memorial at the historic cemetery in Medford Square. They raised money via public fundraising, grants from the city of Medford and from the nonprofit Freedom's Way Heritage Association, which works on heritage projects in New England.
Two of Coates’ third grade students, Jasmine Hagbourne and Liam Brady, took turns reading the names of the enslaved at the unveiling ceremony — "... Plato, Pompy, Prince, Punch, Richard, Rose …" — ringing a bell after each.
"Father, we know that the documents that created our great country are stained by the blood of slaves," said Pastor Gerald E. Bell of West Medford’s historically African-American Shiloh Baptist Church at the ceremony's invocation. "So we've gathered today, Father, to rectify, to renew, to revive, to remember — to consider the blood that has been shed for so many."
Penny Outlaw, co-president of the Royall House and Slave Quarters museum in Medford, said at the unveiling ceremony that she’s often asked about slavery in the north.
"Was it nicer, or kinder and gentler? We have no evidence of that whatsoever," Outlaw told the more than 150 attendees. "We know that Isaac Royall bought and sold people. … We know that children were taken away from their mothers, from their families, routinely in slavery in the north, as in the south. So there was nothing different about that."
The memorial stone reads, “Today and always, we honor the enslaved people buried here and elsewhere in unmarked graves.” Along the base of the memorial are smaller stones, painted with their names.
The choice to write "enslaved people" instead of "slaves" was intentional, Outlaw said.
“We want to acknowledge the humanity of these people," she said. "'Slave' is a political designation about status, but it doesn't tell me who you are as a human being. So I think that was the most important thing for me, that we used the word 'enslaved' and not the word 'slave' on the stone.”
Outlaw said that the memorial was personal for her.
"I've done the genealogical research to know that my father's family was enslaved in North Carolina," she said. "I know that my mother's family was enslaved in Springfield, Tennessee.”
Outlaw explained Medford’s prominence in New England’s Triangle Trade, where rum made in the New World was sold in Africa in exchange for enslaved people. Those enslaved people that survived the infamous Middle Passage were made to work on sugar cane plantations, like the Royalls' plantation in Antigua. Molasses made there was brought back to New England in the 18th century to be distilled into rum.
“Medford was the biggest producer of rum in the colonies,” Outlaw said. “There were five to seven distilleries in Medford Square at the time.”
At the unveiling ceremony, Bell addressed the students who led the initiative to erect the memorial before giving the closing benediction.
“You have made this old dude's heart warm,” Bell said. “You've made my scriptures come alive.”
Bell then read Bible scripture that said when someone is baptized into Christianity, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.”
“I'm an heir to the promise. I'm like Maya Angelou,” Bell said. In his closing, he referenced Angelou's poem, "Still I Rise." "I am the gift that my ancestors gave; I am the hope and the dream of the slave."
An earlier version of this story stated that Penny Outlaw helped craft the words on the memorial stone. In fact, they were written by a volunteer with the Medford Historical Society. We regret the error.