We may not normally think of the establishment of an academic department as an event with political significance, but sometimes social change can lead directly to recognition of necessary parallel changes in scholarship and academic culture. The establishment of the Black Studies Department at Amherst College is one example of this. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections contains records, clippings and publications across several collections which together document the story of how the department came to be.
On the evening before the first annual Black Arts Festival at Amherst, scheduled for April 5, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The festival, organized by the recently formed Amherst College Afro-American Society, was transformed into a tribute to Dr. King. This marked the beginning of a series of conversations, direct actions and administrative upheavals that led to wide-ranging reforms at Amherst College. The Black Studies Department would be the eventual curricular consequence of these reforms.
By the end of April, 1968, Amherst President Calvin Plimpton had appointed The Black and White Action Committee of Amherst College (BWAC) to receive proposals to address economic and cultural disparities at the college. Among the recommendations made by the committee was to “allow for greater representation of the black experience in already existing courses.”* However, it wasn’t until March, 1969, following a student action at a Board of Trustees meeting, that there was a formal demand made for the establishment of a Black Studies Department. Amherst College faculty quickly resolved to commit to this plan and formally voted to implement a Black Studies Program.
The Black Studies Department took time to develop into what it is today. The first year of the program was tumultuous. Students were frustrated that Black Studies was not yet a fully supported department, and that there was not a black director of the program. These frustrations, along with other grievances and the general building of civil rights activism in the Four Colleges and across the country, led to a takeover of Amherst College administrative buildings by two hundred black students on February 18. The aftermath of this takeover produced the Proposal for a Five College Program of Black Studies, submitted by the Ad Hoc Advisory Committee for a Five College Program of Black Studies, made up of students and a group of faculty members from Amherst College, UMass Amherst and Smith College. Amherst Dean Prosser Gifford and professors Norman Birnbaum and John William Ward worked with this group and the Afro-American Society to secure a vote of the faculty to establish a Department of Black Studies. The selected chair was historian Asa J. Davis (1922-1999), who would continue his association with the department until his retirement in 1992.
The records of any academic department teach us as much about cultural shifts as about the activities of the specific department. The early growth of the Black Studies department mirrored civil rights and black power activities and ideas developing outside of the academy in the early 1970s. Looking at the course catalogs from the period, we can trace the emergence of language and political goals also found in black political and intellectual output beyond Amherst. It also becomes clear through tracking the catalog department description how the department refined its mission and goals for education and became bolstered by offerings at the other four colleges.
More information on the establishment of the Black Studies Department and surrounding events in Amherst College history can be found in the Moratoria Collection, General Files (Black Studies Department), and other sources at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
* “A First Report of the Black and White Action Committee of Amherst College,” May 31, 1968.