"Compelled to Servitude": The Story of Belinda

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Photo credit David Burk / Old Sturbridge VillageEach year’s Giving Voice benefit provides important support for the Royall House and Slave Quarters while building a community of engaged members and visitors and showcasing the museum’s important interpretation of critical themes in our past.

This year, Giving Voice will feature the premiere of a new first-person interpretation of Belinda, whose eloquent 1783 petition to the Massachusetts legislature for a pension from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr. is among the earliest narratives by an African American woman. Renowned storyteller Tammy Denease will use Belinda’s own words to bring this strong woman to life — on the site where she lived and worked – and will discuss her own fascinating creative process with the audience. The afternoon will also include house tours, museum exhibits, music, and refreshments.

The first known documentation of Belinda, a woman enslaved by the Royall family, occurs in 1768, when her son and daughter were baptized in Medford, Massachusetts. In February 1783, in the wake of the American Revolution, Belinda successfully petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension for herself and her infirm daughter from the proceeds of Isaac Royall’s estate. She would go on to petition the legislature five more times over the next ten years in her effort to secure payment of what she was owed for a lifetime of servitude.

Belinda’s petition has inspired poets and fascinated historians. It has been seen by some commentators as the first call for reparations for American slavery. And it opens a rare window onto the life on an enslaved woman in colonial North America.

Tammy Denease is uniquely qualified to explore and interpret what we know of Belinda and the turbulent times in which she lived. As a storyteller, teaching artist, and living historian, Ms. Denease gives voice to African-American women whose contributions to the American past are all too often obscured in the traditional historical record. Ms. Denease brought her interpretation of the life of Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman to the Royall House and Slave Quarters for two exciting performances in 2014, and we are proud to present the premiere of her interpretation of Belinda at Giving Voice this year.

Ms. Denease's performance is supported in part by a grant from the Medford Arts Council, a local agency which is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency.  Photo of Ms. Denease credit David Burk / Old Sturbridge Village.