At first glance, “A Racial History of Amherst College” seems like a daunting task. The work of exploring the ways that race has shaped the history of Amherst and the ways Amherst has contributed to the history of race in America could involve an infinite number of approaches and disciplinary lenses. The simple question of where to begin is potentially paralyzing; there is no end to the work.
Centering the Land
One of the key concepts in Amherst Professor Lisa Brooks’s The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast is that the Northeast, including the land now occupied by the Amherst College campus, has long been part of a very active Native network of trade and communication routes, kinship networks and seasonal travels. As is clear from this map of Wampum Trade Routes of the Northeast, Interstate 91 and much of the New York State Thruway system follow ancient routes established by the original inhabitants of this space and it remains a very active center of travel and trade. By focusing on the land, we can begin with the earliest inhabitants of this space, then mark the first arrivals of immigrants from Europe and the involuntary migration of enslaved Africans in this region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As we move through this space in our present moment, how can we bring these place-based histories to life? Fortunately, a wealth of information is available about the Indigenous inhabitants of what is now Western Massachusetts and we will use this space to provide links and reading suggestions. See: Indigenous History Resources
Although “Plymouth Rock” and other celebrated sites of English colonial settlement are on the eastern side of the state, settlers arrived in the Connecticut River Valley shortly after. English settlers quickly explored the Atlantic coast and major rivers inland, encountering Indigenous people and entering into negotiations about occupation and possession of Indigenous lands. The rich farming soils along the banks of the Connecticut River made Nonotuck and Agawam homelands very attractive to English settlers. Men such as John Pynchon and Nathaniel Dickinson negotiated aggressively to take possession of that land through deeds resulting in the displacement of Indigenous people. The city of Springfield was established through such deeds in 1636, Northampton in 1653, and the town of Hadley in 1659; the town of Amherst, originally part of Hadley, became a separate entity in 1759. With Dutch settlement in Manhattan and the Hudson river valley to the south and west, and French settlement along the St. Lawrence river and Great Lakes to the north, Hadley/Amherst was at the very center of the European struggle for dominance in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The town is named to honor Lord Jeffery Amherst, the commander of all British forces in North America whose victories against the French along the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes region secured English control. Amherst himself neither visited nor directed any military actions in the Connecticut River Valley.
English settlers attempted to enslave Indigenous captives throughout the colonial era, but soon realized the advantages of enslaving Africans; Indigenous inhabitants’ extensive kinship ties and deep knowledge of local geography made escape far easier. At the close of the Pequot War, in 1638 a shipload of Pequot captives was sent to the Caribbean to be exchanged for captives from Africa. Shortly after this first group of enslaved Africans arrived, the colonial government of Massachusetts passed its Body of Liberties (1641), legally establishing certain varieties of slavery. The Mass.gov website hosts several resources on the Body of Liberties and other aspects of the legal history of Massachusetts.
This brief introduction sets the stage for the arrival of Rev. David Parsons (1712-1781), who was invited to preach in Hadley’s Third Precinct in November 1735. The History of the Town of Amherst Chapter V goes into great detail about the negotiations between the town and Rev. Parsons regarding his salary, land granted to him by the town, and his annual allowance of firewood, but it fails to mention that he held three people in slavery — a husband, wife, and child named Pompey, Rose, and Goffy. Very few details of their lives are known — Goffy was born in Amherst in January 1748/49 and baptized by Rev. Parsons; Pompey became a member of Rev. Parson’s church in 1758 and attempted to run away in early 1760. Rev. David Parsons (1712-1781) had a son, also Rev. David Parsons (1749-1823), who church records suggest may have been baptised at the same service as Goffy in 1749. Rev. Parsons the younger was one of the founders of Amherst Academy, served as its President from 1816-1820, and contributed funds and property to the founding of Amherst College. The groundbreaking ceremony for South College, held on August 9, 1820 marked both the start of a new school and David Parsons’s retirement from Amherst Academy. Noah Webster took over as President of Amherst Academy in 1820.
One goal of the Racial History project is to attempt to recover more details about the lives of Pompey, Rose, and Goffy. Were they freed after the Revolution or at Rev. Parson’s death in 1781? Did they remain in the area? Such research will be challenging, but is not impossible. We are in touch with the research team working on the Reparations for Amherst project and we have much to learn and share together about the history of slavery and the Black community in and around Amherst. See: Slavery and Amherst.
As we continue to focus on the land — the town of Amherst and the Connecticut Valley more widely — the last 200 years have seen many migrations into this region from all corners of the globe. The Our Plural History project by Springfield Technical Community College includes information on everything from the Irish arriving in the wake of the potato famine in the 1840s to the growth of the Puerto Rican and Hmong communities in more recent years.
On a smaller scale, Amherst College has drawn students, faculty, and staff from around the world; many spend a short time on campus while others arrive and stay put. As part of the Princeton and Slavery project, they created an interactive map of Princeton University Student Origins (1748-1865) which traces students to the state level. What would a similar map of Amherst College Student Origins show us?
The College Catalog for the 1821-22 academic year shows the limited geographical origins of the student body during the early years of the college — everyone came from the Northeast with the majority of students coming from Massachusetts. Amherst College students today come from all fifty states plus US territories and dozens of other countries. While basic information about where students came from is available, there is a lack of full demographic data on the student population over the past 200 years. Statistics on race and gender have been collected systematically since the early 1970s, but that information will need to be carefully reconstructed for the first 150 years of the college. The historical demographics of the faculty and staff at the college have never been compiled.
The first cohort of Research Assistants have spent the first part of the Spring 2021 semester reviewing some of the resources on college history and race that already exist, such as the Amherst in the World volume of essays prepared for the Bicentennial. Each student brings their own perspective to this work and will be sharing their thoughts through our blog. We hope that these posts will spark discussion within the community and guide readers to further reading and resources.
Over time we hope that this site will expand to include a wide range of resources, data, and digital humanities visualizations that help the whole community engage with the good, bad, and the ugly aspects of college history. In all of this work, we hope to demonstrate the unique role colleges and universities have to play in the national conversation about race. This passage from the Introduction to Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice neatly summarizes that role:
“One of the committee’s first actions was to invite anyone interested in our efforts to submit questions, comments, and criticisms. Hundreds of individuals availed themselves of the opportunity, some of them members of the Brown community, most of them not. The temper of the letters varied widely, but one question arose again and again. Why would Brown launch such an undertaking? Why risk opening chapters of the past that are, inevitably, controversial and painful? We hope that the committee’s work – the programs we organized and the report that follows – will suffice as an answer. But there is an even simpler answer: Brown is a university. Universities are dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of knowledge. They are conservators of humanity’s past. They cherish their own pasts, honoring forbears with statues and portraits and in the names of buildings. To study or teach at a place like Brown is to be a member of a community that exists across time, a participant in a procession that began centuries ago and that will continue long after we are gone. If an institution professing these principles cannot squarely face its own history, it is hard to imagine how any other institution, let alone our nation, might do so.”
We hope to use all of the tools in our academic toolkit to shed light on the history of this region and the place of Amherst College in that history. We invite feedback and community input; you can reach the Racial History Research Team by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
— Mike Kelly, Co-Chair of the Steering Committee on a Racial History of Amherst, March 2021.