Brattle Street

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The Mansions

Brattle Street in Cambridge has long been famous as “Tory Row,” known for the wealthy colonial families that resisted the American Revolution – and fled. Among these families were many with links to Ten Hills Farm. Yet reports of their loyalty to the crown are sometimes exaggerated. Isaac Royall Jr., the owner of Ten Hills Farm, held deep loyalties to America and sought to leave not for England, to support the King, but to Antigua where he had inherited a profitable sugar plantation and the many hundreds of enslaved Africans who helped build the family fortune. Unable to catch a ship heading south, however, Royall went to Nova Scotia as those first shots were fired and eventually landed in Great Britain. Once there, the wealthy slave owner pined to return. In his will, to underscore those loyalties, he left Harvard College enough money to found a professorship in medicine or law. Harvard chose the law, and founded Harvard Law School from that gift. Today, the Law School still boasts the Royall Professorship of Law, though the position is now considered somewhat tainted by the Royalls’ connections to the slave trade and the chair is no longer reserved for the dean, as it was for centuries.

Isaac’s sister, Penelope, married the son of a Jamaican planter. Her husband, Henry Vassall, used what little money he had inherited to buy #94 Brattle Street for his new bride and her several inherited slaves. Henry and Penne Vassall lived down the street from what today is the Longfellow House. Then, in the mid 1700s, it was the home of Henry’s relative, John Vassall, who lived there with slaves of his own. Up the street, at a grand estate called Elmwood, which graced a gentle turn of the Charles River, lived another set of relatives. Thomas Oliver, briefly the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts on the eve of war, was Penne’s nephew, born to her half-sister Ann, who moved to New England from Antigua with her husband, son Thomas, and a small group of slaves. Elmwood today is the house of Harvard Presidents.

These houses with their interlaced white families, would have also been home to interlaced black families enslaved in Antigua and shipped north along with other possessions when those wealthy merchants determined the time had come to settle in New England. Many histories have been written of the whites. Of the black families, there is only the thinnest trace. These are our “desaparecidos.”

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