“Ancestral Bridges”: Amherst’s Black and Afro-Indigenous History

“Ancestral Bridges,” a new exhibit that premiered in Frost last week, maps the history of a sixth-generation Black and Afro-Indigenous family in Amherst. Managing Arts & Living Editor Noor Rahman ’25 covers the opening reception, which features a photo gallery and historical artifacts.

“Ancestral Bridges”: Amherst’s Black and Afro-Indigenous History
The new exhibit highlights the present-day relevance of the legacy of slavery in Amherst. Photo courtesy of Jessie Gwilliam.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, Frost Library hosted a reception in honor of the opening of “Ancestral Bridges,” an exhibit featuring photographs and artifacts representing the lives of Black and Afro-Indigenous residents of the town of Amherst in the 18th through 20th centuries, some of whom were employed by the college.

The exhibit, which will be on display through summer 2023, is the product of a collaboration between Amherst College and the Ancestral Bridges Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that uplifts Black and Afro-Indigenous arts, history, and culture in Western Massachusetts.

The individuals featured are also ancestors of Ancestral Bridges Founder Anika Lopes, who curated the exhibit. At the opening reception, Lopes noted that the collection seeks to celebrate the buried histories, not only of her family, but of all BIPOC residents of Amherst, “who gave so much to the town that they loved, but did not love them back.”

While the exhibit pays tribute to the overlooked achievements and contributions of the Black and Afro-Indigenous members of the Amherst community, it also serves as a record of the persecution they endured. Sarah Barr, the advisor to the provost on campus initiatives and director for community engagement, who helped put the exhibit together, highlighted “the ways in which her family story really fits into a broader story about what happened in the United States at the time.”

One photograph depicts Perry Roberts, an employee of the college who was born into slavery and later emancipated, standing in front of Porter House. The exhibition also features a set of Amherst College dishware from Lopes’ family collection, decorated with former college mascot Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who encouraged the use of smallpox-infected blankets as a means of warfare against indigenous people, aiming weapons at Native Americans.

But the antique artifacts and black-and-white photographs also tell a more optimistic story: a narrative of surviving and forging paths forward in the face of horrifying oppression and humiliation. Aging family photos depict three generations of the family in their residence on Snell Street. A display case contains an engraved ivory cane that belonged to Gil Roberts, an acclaimed jazz musician. The cane was gifted to Roberts by King Farouk of Egypt after he performed in his court.

At the opening reception, faculty, staff, and community members packed into the second floor of Frost. It was a unique and diverse gathering, with faculty from the Five Colleges, elderly residents from across Western Massachusetts, and local politicians present. But the most notable attendees were Lopes’ family members: her mother Debora Bridges and her great-aunt Edythe Harris (née Roberts), affectionately known as “Aunt Edie.”

As the guests started to file in, Roberts escorted the 95-year-old aunt around the hallway where the photographs were displayed. Harris excitedly pointed out herself in the family photos, as well as her parents and her grandfather. The emotion of the moment was tangible to those around them — for me, witnessing their emotional response to their family mementos was just as important as seeing the exhibit itself.

The event kicked off with Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, a film producer and friend of Lopes, delivering a beautiful vocal rendition of “Lord Remember Me.” Her rich voice conveyed both the sorrow of a painful history and the joy of a triumphant moment for the community.

Harris, who worked as an educator in the Amherst public school system, shared her experiences growing up during the Great Depression. She recalled stopping by the college’s fraternity kitchens, where her father and uncles were employed, to get cookies on the walk home from school as a young child.

“There is a very important message to be seen here in the photos,” Harris said. “And that is [that] people of color have been an integral part here in Amherst, Massachusetts, for many, many years.”

Lopes’ mother, Roberts, also shared a story from 1961, when she was a fourth grader in the Amherst school system. “We were doing our social studies lesson,” she recalled, “and my teacher asked me, ‘You’re a little colored girl, what do you think it was like to be a slave?’ I think that was the first time I’ve ever felt singled out.”

Lopes later told The Student how much the event meant to her personally: “I was just at a loss for words. I felt very emotional in a way that I hadn’t expected.” The reception continued long after the conclusion of the formal programming; a sense of true community enveloped the room, as old friends embraced one another and new connections were forged.

Both Lopes and Barr emphasized their hope that this exhibit would be the beginning of a meaningful partnership between the college and the Ancestral Bridges Foundation. Lopes highlighted her hope “that people will leave in the look at [the exhibit] and be curious and question how they can be involved. There are so many stories within the stories that need to be discovered.”

“Students, faculty, staff [and] community members all have an opportunity to get involved in the project — of shared memory and of history and telling stories,” said Barr, echoing Lopes’ sentiment. “It really was meant to sort of create an invitation for people to get involved.”

Barr and Lopes, the co-organizers of the exhibit, felt that the collection was an important way to bring to light the shared history of Amherst College and the BIPOC residents of the town of Amherst. Lopes remarked that “there's no time period, unless we're talking about when we predated the college, that there was not the connection with Amherst College in some way.”

“I think it helps us know our own history in very important and powerful ways because I think we don’t often talk about the staff experience at Amherst College,” remarked Barr. She hopes that this exhibit and this nascent partnership with the Ancestral Bridges Foundation can be the beginning of the student body becoming more integrated with the town. “Maybe what Ancestral Bridges offers us is an opportunity to get to know each other better,” she said.

Lopes emphasized the importance of the celebratory aspect of the exhibit. She would like for BIPOC history to involve “learning more about your history than just being a slave or genocide.” She continued, “We’re not used to hearing these types of stories."

Lopes and Barr are both enthusiastic about the potential of the exhibit to help us understand racial and economic stratification in the present day. Barr personally felt that she gained a greater understanding of how historical injustices impacted BIPOC families: “It’s very real and present, it’s not like some far off historical thing. It’s a thing that had an impact on that family.”

In the same vein, Lopes wrote in her curatorial statement, “I hope these images and stories raise questions, prompt further research, and challenge us all to meet our collective responsibility to build a more just and equitable future.”

She hopes that the exhibit will make people question the idea of Amherst’s racism as a historical narrative, as opposed to a present-day reality: “Where do we go from here? Yes, it’s history, but it isn’t really, in terms of action and how people are living? Is it that far away?”

“We can’t really do much about what happened in the past, but we can certainly move forward,” said Lopes, “It’s really about what action can we take and learn from this and from certain struggles and wrongdoing, and turn that into benefits for our future generations.”