Amherst College in 1821

Vision & Values Statement

As a College whose motto is Terras Irradient – “let them give light to the world”  – we are obligated to understand our own history, to be transparent, truthful, and accountable for that history, and to learn from it. To that end, we are turning that light onto ourselves to explore Amherst’s ties to the institution of slavery, the colonization of Indigenous lands and people, and the impact of ideas such as scientific racism at the College. We are seeking to acknowledge the legacy of that history and redress the harms done, and to celebrate those people who have actively fought against these elements of our history. In this work, we are striving to model and reinforce Amherst’s commitment to continuous learning. While we are proud of the College’s many achievements, we also believe that every member of our community should have the opportunity to be equally familiar with our history, not only that which has to do with injustices but also the history of the individuals and groups too often excluded from our institutional story rather than acknowledged and appropriately celebrated.  

Our commitment to a restorative frame underscores our belief that historical wrongs and racial disparities have left lasting inequities at the College and pose impediments to building a more inclusive, thriving, and just community. In a community dedicated to learning, introducing complexity and nuance — pursuing the full truth of the past — should be rewarding and meaningful for everyone. To do this successfully, our history must be easily accessible to all members of the community – as well as to visitors – whether they are visiting us online or in person, visiting our buildings, or traversing our landscape. This work intends to build upon the relationships that are strong, repair the ones that are fraught, and establish the ones that have been missing or neglected.

The Project, 2020-Present

The Steering Committee on a Racial History of Amherst College was established in late 2020 with the following charge:

Charge for the Steering Committee on a Racial History of Amherst College

In the Amherst Anti-Racism Plan, released on 3 August 2020, President Martin noted the need for a historical study of the College’s ties to slaveholding and to capital accumulation based on slavery. In addition, she called for a racial history of the college extending into present times. To coordinate and disseminate research on the college’s racial past, President Martin has formed a Steering Committee on the Racial History of Amherst College.

The primary functions of the Steering Committee will be:

  • To identify and support specific research projects into college and local history with particular focus on any links between the college and the slave trade;
  • To serve as a hub for cross-divisional coordination for research efforts underway across campus;
  • To identify and coordinate appropriate venues for the dissemination of research findings on the college’s racial past;
  • To facilitate connections among faculty, students, staff, and alumni, and other interested stakeholders within and beyond the college around Amherst’s racial history;
  • To provide information and support for faculty interested in integrating college and local history into their courses; and
  • To initiate public programming and support and coordinate programs initiated by others to foster opportunities for dialogue on the college’s racial history.

The Steering Committee will be co-chaired by Catherine Epstein, Provost and Dean of the Faculty, and Mike Kelly, Head of the Archives and Special Collections. The committee will include two faculty members, two students, and one representative from each of the following administrative offices: Advancement; the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; and the Office of Student Affairs. The committee will also include an external expert. It will be staffed by the Director of Academic Projects. The committee will meet at least twice each semester to carry out its charge.

Following this outline, a committee was formed and student research assistants were brought on:

Steering Committee Membership, Spring 2021

  • Co-Chairs: Catherine Epstein (Provost and Dean of the Faculty); Mike Kelly (Head of Archives & Special Collections)
  • Sika Essegbey ’23
  • Norm Jones, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer
  • Professor Hilary Moss
  • Ellis Phillips-Gallucci ’23
  • Professor Leah Schmalzbauer
  • Betsy Cannon Smith ’84, Chief Advancement Officer
  • Angie Tissi-Gassoway, Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion
  •  Nancy Ratner, Director of Academic Projects, supports the work of the steering committee.

Student Research Assistants, Spring 2021

In February 2021, Mike Kelly interviewed and hired the first cohort of Racial History Research Assistants:

  • Claire Dunbar ’21
  • Edmund Kennedy ’23
  • Cy Nguyen ’21

Anna Smith ’22, a student assistant in the Archives, also contributed to this project. All of the work of the Steering Committee is made possible by support from the Archives & Special Collections team, the Digital Programs department, and the entire community in Frost Library.

Student Research Assistants, Fall 2021-Spring 2022

  • Avery-Elizabeth Kimball ‘24
  • Arriana Herrera ‘22

Research Fellow for a Racial History of Amherst College

At the end of 2021, then-President Biddy Martin charged the committee with hiring a dedicated research fellow to expand on the work that students had done. A search was launched in early 2022, and Mike Jirik began work in September 2022. Professor Jirik accepted a tenure-track position in the Black Studies Department at the University of Missouri at Columbia and left Amherst at the end of June 2023.

After another search during the summer of 2023, Julia Carroll became the second research fellow for the project and began work in late September 2023.

Student Research Assistants, Summer 2023

  • Avery-Elizabeth Kimball ’24
  • Jaden White ’23

In fall 2023, President Michael Elliott began his second year as college president. Breathing new life into the Racial History project, he sent a campus-wide email outlining the charge for a newly-constituted Steering Committee on Reckoning with the Racial History of Amherst College, and a subsequent expansion of the effort:

September 26, 2023

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff,

As you know, I am committed to reflecting on the College’s history with honesty and intentionality in order to grasp more fully the complex present in which we live. As part of our 2020 Anti-Racism Plan, we launched work on a broad and deep historical study of the College’s ties to slaveholding and capital accumulation connected with slaveholding. While we have learned much about the College’s ties to the slaveholding economy, there is still more to be learned on this topic and regarding the College’s involvement in racial discrimination in the many decades after the Civil War.

I’m writing today to announce that this work will be continued and expanded under the aegis of the newly constituted Steering Committee on Reckoning with the Racial History of Amherst College. I am charging this new committee with advancing and coordinating campus initiatives to research and commemorate the history of Amherst College, particularly the Black and Indigenous histories of the College and the land that the College occupies. In addition to supervising ongoing research, the committee will consider what it means to reckon with what we are learning. This will entail consideration of forms of public commemoration of the Black and Indigenous histories of the College, including such things as campus signage, commemorative exhibits, and the names of campus buildings and spaces. The committee will also explore partnerships with local community efforts to commemorate and repair histories of racial violence and may sponsor public programming related to these initiatives. The steering committee will be charged for a period of three years, at which point I will reevaluate its structure and purpose.

An important aspect of the committee’s work will be ensuring that relevant stakeholders are consulted in the ongoing process of historical research and commemoration. A “listening tour” will soon be convened, inviting the participation of students and other community members. I urge all of you to participate as we strive to understand and reckon with our history.

Michael A. Elliott

Steering Committee Membership, AY 2023-2024

  • Co-Chairs: Allen Hart, Special Assistant to the President and The Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology); Martin Garnar, Director of the Library
  • Lisa Brooks, Henry S. Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English and American Studies
  • Julia Carroll, Racial History Research Fellow
  • Michael Elliott, President of Amherst College
  • Catherine Epstein, Provost and Dean of the Faculty; former co-chair
  • Elizabeth Herbin-Triant, Associate Professor of Black Studies and History
  • Mike Kelly, Head of Archives & Special Collections; former co-chair
  • Sheree Ohen, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer
  • Kate Salop, Chief Strategy Officer

Student Research Assistants, Spring 2024

  • Joline Fong, ’26
  • Ethan Lin, ’27
  • Kamil Mahmood, ’27
  • Madison Rabb, ’26

For regular updates on the project, follow the Racial History of Amherst College blog and our Instagram page.