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Archive for the ‘Black Studies’ Category

In the first edition of Black Men of Amherst, Harold Wade says this about the list of black graduates in Appendix I:

The list below is of those students attending Amherst who were clearly identifiable (from either yearbook photos or written references) as black Americans. The list is of course incomplete. Whenever in doubt, the author has chosen to eliminate names; those blacks, known in the black community as blacks but passing for white, have not been included. Students in the 19th century are identified from written reference only. Thus, only blacks of some accomplishment would be known. For example, there were blacks at Amherst in the 1870s, but their names are now unknown. Their existence, though, is certain.

As we prepare for the Amherst College Bicentennial celebrations in 2020-2021, the Archives is working closely with Digital Programs to make more college history material available online than ever before. You can read about the various projects under way on their blog: https://digitalcollections.wordpress.amherst.edu/ 

The Amherst College Class Album Collection is a previously untapped resource that is part of our digitization program for the Bicentennial. You can read more about class albums here, but the short version is that they were a way for classes to collect and share photographs of their professors and classmates before the age of modern yearbooks. Our goal is to digitize one album for each class year between 1853 and the end of the collection in 1909.

One result of working with the Class Albums is turning up evidence of those black men of Amherst that Wade knew existed. While the class albums are not yet available in Amherst College Digital Collections, here we offer a preview: five black men of Amherst whose names were not included in Harold Wade, Jr.’s book.

Class of 1877

Madison Smith x1877

Proceeding chronologically, the first black student of the 1870s appears to be Madison Smith, about whom we know very little. According to our alumni records, Smith was born in Scotland Neck, North Carolina on December 8, 1850. He prepped for Amherst at Phillips Academy Andover and attended Amherst College from 1873 until 1875. Our records indicate that he died on August 15, 1875; fortunately, The Amherst Student published a memorial to Smith in the October 9, 1875 issue:

Madison Smith in Amherst Student 1875

Less is known of his classmate, Charles Sumner Wilson:

Charles Sumner Wilson x1877

Wilson was born in Salem, Massachusetts on November 17, 1853; he prepped at Salem High School then attended Amherst College from 1873 until 1875. Our records say he then attended Tufts in Boston from 1876-1877. Apart from a note in the alumni directory that says “In law office, Salem 1877-(?). d. Danvers Jan 17 1904.” we know nothing of Wilson’s life after Amherst.

Class of 1878

The life of Charles Henry Moore is more thoroughly documented; he was born in Wilmington, North Carolina on June 6, 1855. He prepped at the Preparatory Department of Howard University and spent some time at Smith Academy in Hatfield, Massachusetts before spending four years at Amherst.

Charles Henry Moore 1878

Moore returned to the south after graduation and was instrumental in advancing the cause of black education in the region. This earlier blog post gives a much fuller description of his life and accomplishments.

Class of 1879

Similar to Moore, Wiley Lane also pursued a career in education after graduation from Amherst College in 1879.

Wiley Lane 1879

Lane was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina in 1852 and, like Moore, prepped for Amherst at the Howard University Preparatory Department. He spent 1873-1877 at Howard and 1877-79 at Amherst where he became a scholar of classical literature and culture. Immediately after graduation he returned to Howard University where he served first as Assistant Principal, then Principal of the Normal Department (1880-1883) then Professor of Greek from 1883-1885. Lane’s death from pneumonia in February 1885 is reported in The Amherst Student for February 28, 1885:

Wiley Lane in Amherst Student 1885

Class of 1883

Wilbert Lew was born in Gardner, Massachusetts on May 6, 1881; he attended Gardner High School before coming to Amherst. He graduated with the class of 1883 and studied veterinary medicine at Battle Creek, Michigan. After a brief time with the J. N. Leonard silk factory in Florence, Massachusetts (1888-89), he established himself as a veterinary surgeon there from 1889. He died in Amherst in September 1923.

Wilbert Lew 1883

Lew provided a biographical sketch and an up-to-date portrait for the class of 1883’s 25th Reunion book:

Wilbert Lew 25th Reunion

There may be other nineteenth-century black students that we have yet to identify, but we are pleased to update Wade’s assertion: there definitely were black students at Amherst in the 1870s and (some of) their names are now known.

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The Charles Drew House in a previous form

 

It is always thrilling when a single location on campus can pull together from the archival record multiple threads of Amherst’s history. In preparing for Professor Mary Hicks’s Black Studies class in research methods, we discovered the history of the Charles Drew House, a history which incorporated material from five different collections: the Fraternities Collection, the Biographical Files, The Alfred S. Romer Papers, the Building and Grounds Collection, and the Charles Drew House Photo Albums.

 

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A 1922 article from the Springfield Union on the completion of the Phi Kappa Psi renovations

The history of the Charles Drew House begins with the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter at Amherst College. Founded in 1895, the fraternity first occupied a home on Amity Street in Amherst. It purchased and remodeled in the late 1910s the mansion owned by Julius Seelye, a former president of the College. The Springfield Union touted the home’s “choicest location” in town and the justification of “as pretentious a motive as the circular porch.”

In the midst of World War II, the fraternity came close to losing its home. Amherst College administration considered prohibiting fraternities on campus. Advocates, including many alumni, convinced the trustees to preserve fraternity life with the condition that certain reforms would be made. In 1946, the trustees of Amherst College announced that fraternities would be required to remove any clause in their constitutions that discriminated against pledges based on race, ethnicity, or religion.

This momentous change challenged the national attitudes toward inclusion in fraternities. This became evident when the Amherst chapter of Phi Kappa Psi pledged Thomas Gibbs, an African American freshman, in the spring of 1948. Gibbs was a member of the track team and a class officer. A fellow Phi Kappa Psi brother described him as “quiet but not shy, and all in all, an extra special sort of fellow.” Students and alumni alike were largely in support of Gibbs joining. The Fraternities Collection in the Amherst College archives provides evidence of community opinion. However, the national organization pressured the Amherst chapter into depledging Gibbs until the fraternity had had ample time to consider the affair. In the fall of 1948, the Amherst chapter polled Amherst alumni and the Phi Kappa Psi national community and moved forward with their plan to pledge Gibbs. The story garnered news interest and the national organization – bristling at Amherst’s perceived public defiance – pulled the Amherst chapter’s charter. The chapter pledged Thomas Gibbs and became a local fraternity: Phi Alpha Psi.

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A letter sent by the Amherst chapter asking for the advice and support of its alumni.

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The Phi Alpha Psi entry in the Olio of 1951, the year Thomas Gibbs graduated. In his time with the fraternity he was elected president.

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This March 1948 letter written by a member of the pledging committee seeks Romer’s advice on Thomas Gibbs.

 

 

 

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The chair of the Phi Alpha Psi corporation at the time was Alfred Sherwood Romer (AC 1917), the director of Harvard University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His papers in the Amherst College archives contain correspondence between Romer, the Phi Kappa Psi brothers, and alumni. The correspondence demonstrates a variety of opinion on the matter. Romer wrote an article, “The Color Line in Fraternities,” which was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1949. It garnered attention. A student in Illinois read the article in her “Social Problems class” and wrote to Romer in the early 1950s, curious as to the outcome. This prompted Romer to write a postscript to the article.

 

 

 

This exchange between Romer and Miss D. Frederick in 1951 shed further light on the Gibbs/Phi Alpha Psi story. Click on the images to view them in closer detail, and note the secretary’s shorthand on D. Frederick’s letter to Romer.

 

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Drew’s (r) entry in the Amherst Olio from his fourth year, 1926

Charles Drew was born in Washington, D.C., in 1904. He attended Amherst College and graduated in 1926 – afterwards he received an M.D. and a C.M. from McGill University. Charles Drew was known for his pioneering research into blood banks and the use of blood plasma. During the early years of World War II he spearheaded the collection of blood plasma as part of the “Blood for Britain” program. He also was appointed director of the first American Red Cross Blood Bank. He served for many years on the faculty of the Howard University Medical School. Tragically, Drew’s life was cut short in an automobile accident while driving with colleagues to a conference at the Tuskegee Institute. Many organizations honored Charles Drew by putting his name on elementary schools, a medical university, and residence halls at both Howard University and Amherst College.

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By the mid-1960s, Phi Alpha Psi (also known as Phi Psi) had withdrawn from the fraternity system and were known for their reputation as a counter-cultural institution on campus. In the 1970s Phi Psi pushed for the house to be named after Charles Drew but the organization was denied. For more information on Phi Psi visit Amherst Reacts, a digital humanities project put together by Amherst students in 2016.

 

In 1984 Amherst College banned fraternities, following the resolutions laid out in the  Final Report of the Ad Hoc Committee on Campus Life. The houses were transformed into dormitories and were renamed after significant members of the college community. The unofficial Charles Drew House once again pushed for an official dedication and was granted such in 1987.

Today, the Charles Drew House sponsors “events that will celebrate the achievements of black people such as Charles Drew and explore the cultures of Africa and the Diaspora at large. This house was founded as a space where members of the Amherst community can engage in intellectual debate, social activities, artistic expression, and all other endeavors, which highlight Africa and the Diaspora and the accomplishments of its diverse peoples.” (see the full constitution here)

The Charles Drew House also lives in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, where scrapbooks and photograph albums kept by the residents of the Charles Drew House from 1986 to 2010 are held.

 

 

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I am currently putting the finishing touches on our new exhibition: Race & Rebellion at Amherst College. This exhibition explores the history of student activism and issues of race, beginning with the founding of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and the “Gorham Rebellion” of 1837 through the takeover of campus buildings by black student activists in the 1970s. No exhibition on a subject as broad and complicated as race can ever claim to be truly comprehensive and all-inclusive. This exhibition focuses on recovering the deeper history of African-American lives at Amherst College between 1826 and the late 1970s; we could just as easily have mounted an entire exhibition about more recent events of the last 25 – 50 years.

Two books about Amherst’s black alumni have been published: Black Men of Amherst (1976) by Harold Wade, Jr. and Black Women of Amherst College (1999) by Mavis Campbell. Both of these books need to be revised and brought up to date. One theme in the exhibition is the recovery of black lives at the college that were not included in either published volume. In some cases, we have identified African-American students who graduated from Amherst in the 19th century who were not included in Black Men of Amherst, but there are entire categories of people who were intentionally left out of both books.

Prof Charley

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As we have mentioned in earlier posts, newly digitized material from the Archives will be added to Amherst College Digital Collections on a regular basis. This week I want to call attention to the nearly complete run of Amherst College yearbooks — The Olio — now available online.

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1974 Black Studies brochure

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.

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