In the hustle of their daily commutes, most of those who pass by Cambridge’s Christ Church do so without a second glance. The average passerby has no idea there is a tomb in the basement holding the remains of a formerly enslaved person. His name was Darby Vassall. Vassall chose to be buried at the church, though no one knows the reason why.
Founded in 1759 and located at Zero Garden Street in Harvard Square, Christ Church has been deeply ingrained in the Cambridge community for centuries, with generations of Harvard students and towering figures like George Washington passing through its doors. Despite its lasting presence in the area, most people are unaware of the tomb concealed in the church’s basement. Nicole Piepenbrink, who graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Design in spring of 2022, wants that hidden history to come to light. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Piepenbrink described how her film “HERE LIES DARBY VASSALL” aims to achieve that goal.
“HERE LIES DARBY VASSALL” is an 11-minute short film that was projected on loop on an 8-foot high by 29-foot long curved screen outside of Christ Church every evening from Oct. 12 to Nov. 6. It is part of the church’s broader commitment to racial justice, which includes efforts to reckon with the institution’s ties to slavery. Piepenbrink’s film offers biographical information on Darby Vassall and his connection to the church in the form of a voiceover, with key words from the narration displayed on the screen. The text is overlaid on a video of people slowly walking into the basement of the church and encircling the tomb in the center of the space. A song inspired by a hymn plays in the background, with the lyrics, “Oh mighty God, from you no secrets are hid.”
Piepenbrink, who describes herself as a multidisciplinary designer, began working on “HERE LIES DARBY VASSALL” as her thesis project at the Graduate School of Design. The project arose from her investigations into the church’s history.
“A lot of my research involved following the money,” she said. “So looking at transactions and sources of wealth in white colonial families that were giving money to Christ Church. But that research was juxtaposed with this tomb, and specifically Darby Vassall’s presence in the tomb. It was kind of like the history of slavery was so evident in the story of this site, in this church in this parish, but it was nowhere to be found, nowhere to be seen.”
Working with her advisers, Piepebrink realized the story of the tomb had to become the core of her project. “So the question for us became: How does this repressed narrative — and the tomb — how does it come above ground, become visible, become accessible to the public, and become known?”
Her film was the answer to that question. Most people — even most parishioners — have no easy access to the basement of the church, Piepenbrink explained.
“It’s just so symbolic of so many things, right. It’s underneath the ground, the public can’t access it,” she said. “It’s just been treated like a receptacle for stuff like most basements… not like a sacred space, or not respected at all, really.”
Piepenbrink’s film brings Darby Vassall’s often overlooked story to the public eye.
It begins by stating that he was born on May 16, 1769 and died on Oct. 12, 1861, and identifies him as a son, brother, husband, father, co-founder of the African Society, property owner, and activist. Narrator Timothy Joseph goes on to explain that the proprietor of the church, Henry Vassall, who was described by Darby as a “very wicked man,” purchased Darby’s father Tony from Jamaica. Henry paid 13 pounds, six shillings, and eight pence in Jamaican currency for a church pew; in an inventory of Henry’s belongings, Tony is estimated to be worth the same amount as a church pew.
Contrasting the presentation of these stark and chilling facts is the video of people — including parishioners and even Darby Vassall’s descendants — standing around the tomb in a moment of reverence. Piepenbrink said that she was especially grateful to have worked alongside Darby’s living descendents, including Dennis Lloyd and his daughter Egypt Lloyd, who founded the Slave Legacy History Coalition.
Notably, “HERE LIES DARBY VASSALL” was an outdoor, highly visible public installation, difficult for any Harvard Square passerby to ignore — an intentional choice.
“History doesn’t end at the border of Christ Church’s grass,” Piepenbrink said. “It is connected with the history of its immediate context and broader context. So it’s really trying to connect the site to external geographies like Jamaica and Antigua. This is really a story about the parish and beyond. It only made sense, I think, for it to be public.”
Piepenbrink noted that the film isn’t meant to offer people neat answers.
“I really wanted it to start up a process of thinking and reflecting and engaging and communicating — to sort of ignite change, ignite movement, ignite something,” she said.
She also acknowledged that each individual viewer has a unique take away from the film. “If someone has questions and they want to know more, it’s a win,” she said.
In addition to providing a historical education, Piepenbrink wanted the film to emotionally resonate with people.
“I wanted it to enter the head. But then with the music, and the visuals, I really wanted it also to enter the heart.”
“HERE LIES DARBY VASSALL” can be watched online through the project’s website hereliesdarbyvassall.art.
—Arts Chair Jaden S. Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.
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