Transcription of Belinda’s Petition to the Massachusetts General Court on Feb. 14, 1783  
Original manuscript, Massachusetts Archives

Who was the first person to ask for reparations for slavery?

In America the concept of reparations for slavery is generally thought to have originated during the Civil War era, with the failed promise of 40 acres and a mule. But it actually dates back to Revolutionary America, when a former slave named Belinda went before the Massachusetts Legislature and asked that an “allowance may be made … out of the estate” of her former master.

Belinda lived for more than 40 years in bondage to Isaac Royall Jr., a native of Massachusetts and the scion of sugar planters who made their fortune in Antigua. She spent most of those four decades on Royall’s expansive property in Medford, Mass., where he was the town’s largest slaveholder. (Some 60 slaves—not simultaneously—would occupy the house in the decades prior to the Revolution.) Royall, a loyalist, fled Massachusetts in 1775, within days of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and Belinda became the property of the commonwealth, which freed her in 1778. Belinda and her sickly daughter moved to Boston.

In 1781 a slave known as Mum Bett (later Elizabeth Freeman) famously sued her master for freedom and won. In 1783, following Commonwealth v. Jennison, Massachusetts abolished slavery. The American Revolution would end in September of that year. It was in this atmosphere, early in 1783, that the elderly, impoverished Belinda sought recompense for her years of unpaid labor. Her petition, presumed to be written by the black abolitionist Prince Hall, stated that she was “denied the enjoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumilated [sic] by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.” Swayed, the legislature awarded Belinda an annual pension of 15 pounds. (Belinda disappeared from all records after 1790.)

Royall knew nothing of Belinda’s successful claim on this tiny portion of his estate. He had made scant provisions for her in his will—“for 3 years, £30”— but the sum was not to be paid in perpetuity, and Belinda outlived him. Royall died of smallpox in England in 1781. As we know, he was a rich man.

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His father had ensured his family’s wealth by participation in the Triangle Trade while in Antigua. His preferred commodities were rum, sugar and slaves. The son, in turn, ensured the family’s legacy by bequeathing land to Harvard University for the purpose of “endow[ing] a Professor of Laws at said college, or a Professor of Physics and Anatomy.” As the Harvard Law website explains, “Harvard took the opportunity to fund its first chair in law, and the Royall chair continues to support an HLS professor today, more than 200 years later.” It goes on: “In 1806, Royall’s heirs sold the rest of his estate and used the funds to establish a school of law at Harvard University.” Nowhere in this brief history is it acknowledged how those funds came to be accumulated.

Some scholars—including Eric Johnson, an associate professor at the University of North Dakota School of Law and a Harvard Law graduate; and Janet Halley (pdf), who has held the endowed professorship of the Royall Chair of Law since 2006—have questioned the debt Harvard Law owes to the enslaved individuals whose labor essentially funded this chair and led to the founding of the law school itself. Even the school’s shield, Johnson notes, which bears the three bushels of wheat that adorn the Royall family’s coat of arms, serves as a reminder of Belinda and the other slaves who tended the fields that yielded the Royalls’ wealth.

As recently as 2011, Harvard history professor Sven Beckert, along with then-teaching fellow Katherine Stevens and students in their undergraduate Harvard and Slavery research seminar, undertook a project to explore Harvard’s financial ties to slavery. They were following in the footsteps of Ruth Simmons, then-president of Brown University, who in 2003 appointed a committee to investigate the entanglements between the founders of that university and slavery, and to contemplate reparations as compensation for those entanglements.

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The bold move by Simmons, the first African-American president of an Ivy League institution, sent shock waves through the academy, giving voice to a past that had remained shrouded in secrecy, and to a solution considered unspeakable by many. (Harvard President Drew Faust, herself one of the nation’s leading historians on the Civil War, chose not to pursue an institutional investigation into the subject but fully supported Beckert and his team, who, in his introduction, thanks Faust for “engaging with our efforts along the way, and encouraging yet deeper consideration of the implications of our students’ research.”)

Shortly after Simmons called for the committee at Brown, Elena Kagan, who now sits as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, became dean of Harvard Law School and turned down the Royall chair, which was offered to her concurrently. According to Catherine Manegold, a former fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, in Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North, “what had always been a distinction bearing high prestige was a sticky mat no one knew quite how to touch.”

Although Professor Halley tackled the legacy of her chair’s benefactor bluntly and, no less, in the pages of a Harvard Law publication, the question of what exactly might be Harvard’s obligations to the slaves owned by its funders remains unanswered in any official capacity by the university. In the 2013 Boston Globe article “One House, Two Histories in Medford” (pdf), the University of Kentucky historian Joanne Pope Melish references what she calls the “‘amnesia’” surrounding slavery in New England. At Harvard it is not so much amnesia, according to Professor Beckert (pdf), as “a deafening silence on the topic in most remembrances of this great university.”