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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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The Networked Recluse

From now until the end of May, visitors to the Morgan Library & Musuem in New York City will be able to stand in one room and see Emily Dickinson manuscripts and other pieces drawn from seven different collections. The exhibition is the culmination of a two-year collaboration between the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections and the curators of the Morgan Library.

Take a look at the information on the Morgan’s web site: http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/emily-dickinson 

I want to use this blog post to thank several of the people who made this happen, starting with my collaborator on the Morgan side, Carolyn Vega, Assistant Curator of Literary and Historical Manuscripts. I often say that I got to do the fun parts of the exhibition while Carolyn took charge of less-fun things, like arranging loans from several different repositories.

That very work is what makes this exhibition so special — many of the items brought together have never been exhibited together before, and will likely not come together again for quite a while. Chief among these items is the famous portrait of the Dickinson children, which has not left the Houghton Library at Harvard University since they acquired it in the 1940s.

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Here is the portrait as it is now displayed in the gallery at the Morgan, against a backdrop of the reconstruction of the wallpaper from Dickinson’s bedroom. That wallpaper was only discovered as part of the reconstruction of Dickinson’s bedroom undertaken by the Emily Dickinson Museum in 2013. We are all very grateful to Houghton Library for lending this work, and to Jane Wald and the crew of the Emily Dickinson Museum for their support of this exhibition.

Other recently discovered Dickinson items include the portrait of two women, one of whom MAY be Emily Dickinson:

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While this daguerreotype remains the private property of an anonymous collector, “Sam Carlo” was kind enough to place it on deposit at Amherst College and to allow us to include it in this exhibition. For the first time ever, visitors can see the portrait of Dickinson as a child (Houghton Library), the silhouette cut when she was 14, the lock of her hair, the authentic 1846 daguerreotype, and compare all of those likenesses to this recently discovered image.

Other lenders to the show are: the Emily Dickinson Museum, Mount Holyoke College, New York Public Library, and Boston Public Library. The Morgan’s own holdings of Dickinson manuscripts round out the total of seven institutions who contributed to making this show a success. Many thanks to all of them.

Another massive thank you goes out to Mark Edington, Director of the Amherst College Press, who valiantly managed the production of the exhibition catalogue: The Networked Recluse: The Connected World of Emily Dickinson. As with all of the products of the Amherst College Press, anyone with an internet connection can download the complete work as a PDF file. Copies of the printed book are currently available through the Morgan Library gift shop. Many thanks to Mark and to our contributors: Marta Werner, Susan Howe, and Richard Wilbur.

Last, and definitely not least, I must thank the staff of the Amherst College Archives & Special Collections for their knowledge and support and patience. We have a lot to be proud of, and none of it could have happened without them.

I will end with a link to the first review of the exhibition which appeared in the New York Times on Friday, January 20 — the date the exhibition opened to the public. Pulitzer Prize winning critic Holland Cotter said many nice things about our work, for which we are all extremely grateful:

“I’m Nobody”? Not a chance, Emily Dickinson

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you follow this blog –and you should– then you know that Amherst has a lot of collections from missionary families.  Because I work with these collections a lot, especially in arranging and describing new ones, I’ve settled into a comfortable theory about how the work of missionaries changed over the decades and generations.  I notice a first generation of “strict missionaries” whose goal is first and foremost to spread the gospel.  Their children, often born and raised abroad, speak two or three languages, and they know their parents’ work and where it succeeded and where it failed.  They’re still usually missionaries working for the American Board, but their work often branches into teaching at primary and middle-school levels, or working in a medical clinic.  A third generation is even more removed from the original mission work and its members become professors or doctors. Fourth and fifth generations might see some diplomats, government professionals, and journalists.  The shift feels linear.  But I always knew this way of thinking was a broad generalization, and too comfortable.  I knew there would be someone to rock the boat, to mess with my theory — to zig where so many seemed to zag.

Mary Averett Seelye, ca. 1965

Mary-Averett Seelye, ca. 1965

The Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Franck Family Papers (the “Franck Papers,” to be succinct but less accurate) contain an unexpected and substantial section of papers from Kate and Laurens Seelye’s daughter Mary-Averett Seelye, a professional dancer whose particular interest was what she termed “poetry in dance.”  Seelye was careful to explain that she didn’t dance to poetry, she danced poetry – she danced a poem.  It wasn’t an easy concept for some audiences to understand – reviews and articles show repeated explanation.

Seelye seems to have had an eye to her archives fairly early on: her papers make it possible to follow her career from start to finish, and include over 65 years of documentation illustrating the determination and hard work she put into that career.  It contains correspondence, photographs, publicity materials, reviews, interviews, an audio recording of a performance, and one film.

Mary-Averett Seelye was born in New Jersey but her family moved to Beirut (then in Syria) when she was only a few months old.  For one of the many résumés in the collection, Seelye made notes describing her childhood in a way that captures the years that formed her character and provided inspiration for her work:

Mary-Averett Seelye grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, where father taught; mother was active in voluntary women’s organizations.  Grandparents occupied a top floor apartment.  Turkish, French, Arabic filled the air.  She attended an American school, summered under olive trees overlooking the Mediterranean; mosquito netting; jackal howls.  Community-all-ages-baseball every Saturday afternoon provided public measure of the youngsters’ developing prowess to catch a fly and hit a homer.  Parents loved to dance.  Father taught daughters.  Daughters taught brother.  Easter holidays took the family to Palmyra, Jerusalem, Cairo, Damascus.  Part of an ethnic minority–yes–but a privileged one in which occupations were to learn and discover, educate, provide medical, spiritual, and economic help and “live in international brotherhood.”*

The Chambers-Seelye clan in Adana, Turkey, about 1922. Back row: Laurens H. Seelye (AC 1911); Kate Chambers Seelye; Dorothea Chambers holding her niece Dorothea Seelye; William Nesbitt Chambers. Seated: Cornelia Williams Chambers and her granddaughter Mary-Averett Seelye.

The Chambers-Seelye clan in Adana, Turkey, about 1922. Back row: Laurens H. Seelye (AC 1911); Kate Chambers Seelye; Dorothea Chambers holding her niece Dorothea Seelye; William Nesbitt Chambers. Seated: Cornelia Williams Chambers and her granddaughter Mary-Averett Seelye.

A stop along a Seelye family excursion, 1931.

A stop along a Seelye family excursion, 1931.

Seelye’s notes go on to record the family’s furlough in the United States that became permanent for Mary-Averett.  New England replaced the Middle East as home.  Seelye attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied drama.  In the winter of 1940, she formed the “Trio Theatre” with Carolyn Gerber and Molly Howe, two fellow graduates from Bennington.  The group performed”pieces incorporating movement and words,” including their version of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit.”  Seelye then went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for her M.A., which she received in 1944.

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Mary-Averett Seelye (at left), ca. 1943, with an unspecified member of the Trio Theatre at the Forest Theatre, located on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Seelye at right. Forest Theatre, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

In 1949 she formed the Theatre Lobby with Mary Goldwater and worked as its production director for nine years.  The Theatre Lobby was a “pocket theatre” located in an old carriage house in the mews behind St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  The cast performed classic and modern works and was interracial at a time when other Washington theatres weren’t.  Seelye’s last work as director for the theater was Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in 1959.  The collection contains a note from Beckett to Seelye congratulating her on her work.  (Click on images for gallery.)

By the 1960s Seelye’s interest had turned increasingly to solo performances, specifically the concept of poetry-in-dance.  It was work that had grown out of her studies in drama and dance at Bennington College and that she had performed early on, then intermittently during the Theatre Lobby years, and then again — under the title of “Poetry-in-Dance”– beginning in 1957.  She would perform “Poetry-in-Dance” regularly through the 1960s and 70s.   Georgetown University’s Donn B. Murphy wrote a short memoir about Seelye in which he described the work that gathered momentum in this period:

Although American choreographers worked with words as early as Martha Graham’s American Document in 1938, Ms. Seelye was virtually alone in the continuity of her work in this mode, and in the individuality of her performances, presented over a period of more than thirty years.  She was noted for choosing exceptionally challenging literature and joining it with a movement idiom which is more often abstract than illustrative…

Extremely tall and thin, Ms. Seelye’s striking physical presence onstage was enhanced by minimal sculptural forms, carefully imagined costumes, and arresting lighting effects.  Though her works sometimes used music composed by Stephen Bates and Jutta Eigen, they were more characteristically performed to the sound of her voice alone.  She moved around, on top of, and through the sculptural pieces…

Investigating several cultures through personally devised visions in motion, Seelye was an actress-choreographer-dancer linked both with the earliest performers of antiquity, and the latest creators of avant-garde.”*

(Click for gallery.)

In 1972 she formed Kinesis, a logical extension of Poetry-in-Dance. She continued to dance into her late 70s. (Click for gallery.)

Of course, Seelye never forgot her youth in the Middle East.  Her way of remaining connected to the family’s roots there included a trip in the 1980s to perform in Beirut and Istanbul.  She also used Turkish and Arabic poetry in her repertoire in the United States.

Mary-Averett Seelye, posed among ruins, around 1984.

Mary-Averett Seelye, posed among ruins, around 1984.

Seelye’s papers indicate that she had some concern that her particular brand of dance might die with her if she didn’t take care to document her work.  Toward the end of her career she began to work with videographer Vin Grabill to film some of her performances. The result was a three-DVD collection of Seelye’s work, as well as a smaller film, “Poetry Moves,” featuring Seelye’s work with poet Josephine Jacobsen.  Seelye and Jacobsen collaborated for many years, and some of their correspondence is in the collection.  Clips of Seelye’s later performances may be seen at Vin Grabill’s Vimeo site, here.

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Franck Papers, Box 14, Folder 1: Resumes and other biographical documents.

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The slaves on the sugar estates – do they appear hardworked dispirited and oppressed? Open your eyes and ears to every fact connected with the actual condition of slavery everywhere – but do not talk about it – hear and [see] everything but say little.*

1824-shepard-chas-u-1850sIn 1832, Yale’s eminent scientist Benjamin Silliman advised botanist Charles Upham Shepard (Amherst Class of 1824) on how to negotiate his visit to the South, where Shepard was to investigate sugar plantations in order to assist Silliman in the production of a report to the United States government on the sugar industry.  The investigation had begun in 1830 with a request from the House of Representatives to Secretary of the Treasury Samuel Ingham to “cause to be prepared a well digested Manual, containing the best practical information concerning the culture of the Sugar Cane, and the fabrication and refinement of Sugar, including the most modern improvements” (“Manual” preface).  Ingham’s successor Louis McLane gave the project to Silliman, and Silliman divided it into tasks for four men, including Shepard, who went to Louisiana and Georgia, “where the sugar cane is cultivated.”

In his advice to Shepard quoted above on how to treat with the planters, Silliman was suggesting that he avoid antagonizing them with any kind of anti-slavery argument if he wanted the planters to cooperate with the research.  Elsewhere — in correspondence between Silliman and Amherst’s President Edward Hitchcock — Silliman comes across as someone who could at once view slavery as an original sin and – from his own earlier visit to the South — observe that most of the slaves he saw were “well-treated,” simultaneous opinions that were probably typical for his time and station.  We don’t know what Shepard’s views were, but it’s likely they were similar to Silliman’s.

The Charles Upham Shepard Papers contain some of Shepard’s notes and correspondence relating to “the sugar inquiry,” including several documents from planters who either answered Shepard in the form of his questionnaire or who wrote their answers in a letter. Many of these focus on the manufacture of sugar from cane, rather than on growing cane itself.

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Shepard’s sketch of a “Steam Boiler” used in the manufacture of sugar. (C.U.Shepard Papers, Box 3, Folder 5.)

In at least one case, though, we have notes in Shepard’s hand from his conversation with a planter. The planter was Stephen Henderson, who owned several cotton and sugar plantations, including one named Destrehan, a plantation that exists as a tourist site today.

The name “Destrehan” might not have caught my eye if I had not recently watched the film “12 Years a Slave” and then read both the book from 1853 on which the film was based and a little about the making of the film.

The film includes a scene filmed in Destrehan’s “mule barn,” which was re-purposed to serve as plantation owner Edwin Epps’s cotton barn.  If you’ve read “Twelve Years” or watched “12 Years,” you’ll remember that Epps is the man who enslaved Solomon Northup for ten years — he was apparently the cruelest of Northup’s many tormentors.

"Antebellum splendor": the home of Edwin Epps as it appeared in the 1970s.

The home of Edwin Epps as it appeared in the late 1970s. This photograph was probably taken by Dr. Sue L. Eakin, who brought “Twelve Years” back into public view after many decades in which it was nearly impossible to find a copy.

So, what exactly did this folded-up document that mentions Destrehan say? Here it is, including Shepard’s blurry ink-over-pencil tracing, abbreviations, and mistakes, in a sort of poisoned verse form. It’s a modest-looking document whose early 19th-century handwriting – itself dashed off probably while meeting with the planter– resists quick understanding, but transcribing it reveals sobering truths.  Perhaps only Kara Walker could illustrate this text properly.

 

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Of course, the people performing the labor described in the document above had names and identities. The document below is the first page of the registry of slaves on Henderson’s estate at the time of his death in 1838, five years after Shepard made his notes. This page shows only the first dozen of the 152 people listed on subsequent pages in the document.

 

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Destrehan Plantation’s site has a transcription of the full list of enslaved people. The complete inventory of Henderson’s estate is available through ancestry.com or ancestrylibrary.com.   See also the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for complementary material on subjects discussed in this post.  The Museum opens next week, and the New York Times has published a preview featuring samples from parts of the museum.

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*”Mr. Silliman’s Instructions,” Charles Upham Shepard Papers, Box 3, Folder 5, page 4.

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The Social Dorms

As the social dorms have just been torn down this summer, replaced for the moment by a giant construction site, let’s take a moment to look back at their beginnings.  The five social dorms (Pond, Coolidge, Crossett, Davis, and Stone) were built as part of a $17 million development plan (the Amherst Capital Program) which included building Frost Library and the Valentine Annex, among other projects.  Construction began in 1962, they began housing students in 1963, and the last of the dorms were completed by 1964.Construction was not without hiccups- several dorms were without hot water for the first months of school when they opened in September of 1963, and the entire complex was without heat for two months.

 

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1962 groundbreaking (site of Davis dorm) with Plimpton, McCloy, and Knight

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1962 dorm construction

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A 1963 visit by Trustees’ spouses, in front of Crossett

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A view of the completed social dorms

The social dorms were built to alleviate overcrowding in Amherst’s housing- to accommodate more students from the growing student body, and provide more comfortable, private, effective accommodations.  A 1930s faculty committee tasked with a study of the student environment stated that:

“Without discounting matters of age, individual variation, maturity, or custom, it does not seem unreasonable to associate much of the immature irresponsible behavior of some of our students with the physical conditions under which they live. Crowded, impersonal, barracks-like accommodations are too apt to invite a lack of respect both for those surroundings and for their other inhabitants… To be housed like a schoolboy or a recruit is for many to behave like one.”

The creation of the new dorms, which were organized around a suite-style model, with singles clustered around a common room and bathroom, were intended to address such criticism and provide space for students to not just sleep, but also work, as school work was increasingly carried out in student rooms instead of the library.  The dorms were quite popular with students at the outset, and their layout and design were widely praised.  They were seen as largely quieter than the fraternities during the 70s and early 80s, but with the abolition of fraternities in 1984, they began to become more a center of student activity and partying.

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Coolidge interior

 

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1960s Crossett interior

The dorms were named for a variety of Amherst graduates.  Coolidge Hall was (obviously) named after President Calvin Coolidge (AC 1895); Stone was named after Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone (AC 1894).  Davis Hall was named after Arthur Vining Davis (AC 1888), former chairman of the board of the Aluminum Company of America, who gave funds for the dormitory’s construction.  Crossett was named after Edward C. Crossett (AC 1905), a long-time beneficiary of the college.  Pond is the namesake of Peter Pond, an 18th century fur trader, soldier, and explorer who once served under Lord Jeffery Amherst and was an ancestor of the anonymous donor for the dorm.

 

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“I left Harpoot the 17th of May, going alone three days’ journey to Diarbekir, somewhat to the scandal of the missionaries along the way. However, I knew the road well and was not in the least afraid, and after all nothing happened.” (Letter of Dec 3, 1915)

“I left Harpoot the 17th of May, going alone three days’ journey to Diarbekir, somewhat to the scandal of the missionaries along the way. However, I knew the road well and was not in the least afraid, and after all nothing happened.” (Dora Mattoon, letter of Dec 3, 1915)

What inspires a woman to throw over her life from one day to the next, to go from apparent comfort and a great job in a big city to a remote post in a country she’s never been to, where they speak a language she hasn’t studied at all?  And what would possess her to leave the first country after five years of hard work for an entirely different one, retraining herself all over again?  (more…)

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Yesterday marked the last class visit to the Archives & Special Collections for the Spring 2016 semester. The class was “Early Women Writers” taught by Amherst English Professors Amelia Worsley and Ingrid Nelson, and it was a great excuse for me to dig into our collections to see what we have in this area.

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