Researchers Lay Out Amherst History of Racial Exploitation, Slaveholding

At a panel event on April 11, four researchers shared insights into Amherst's racially exploitative past. Topics of discussion included the college's connections to slavery, the town of Amherst's reparations, and the generational impact on descendants of Black ancestors.

Researchers Lay Out Amherst History of Racial Exploitation, Slaveholding
Orra White Hitchcock's 1821 illustration of Amherst College is ever-present in the college's covering of its own history as one of the only images we have depicting the institution during the time period investigated by scholars like Mike Jirik, Anika Lopes, and Erika Slocumb. Photo Courtesy of Amherst College.

Racial history researchers at a panel on April 11 presented their findings about the history of racial exploitation and disenfranchisement, including slavery, within the college and the broader community. The event, titled “Slavery, Amherst College, and Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley,” was hosted by the Racial History Steering Committee, along with the Office of the President, and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

The event featured Mike Kelly, co-chair of the Steering Committee on A Racial History of Amherst College (RHAC), and Mike Jirik, RHAC’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow, who both spoke to the college’s physical and financial ties to slavery.

Jirik argued that Amherst profited from slavery and the slave economy, both at its founding and during its rescue from bankruptcy in 1847.

“Not only were the financial connections to slavery and the development of racist thought a central element of the college’s founding and evolution, the historians of the college have neglected to subsequently include these subjects or address them in their works,” Jirik said. “It has never been part of the college's narrative until this project began, which was a result of student protest.”

Kelly and Jirik were joined by Anika Lopes, president of Ancestral Bridges, which currently has a display  in Frost Library, and Erika Slocumb, a doctoral student of Black studies at UMass Amherst and contributor to “Documenting the Early History of Black Lives in the Connecticut River Valley.” Along with testifying to the broader legacy of slaveholding in the Valley, both speakers addressed their personal connection to the area’s racial history.  

President Michael Elliott introduced the event, and emphasized that the research would have an effect beyond the panel itself.

“It’s my role as president to carry this event forward to think about where we will take this research, how we will translate it into meaningful action, and how we can become a campus that continuously engages with its own history and makes that history visible,” Elliott said.

The research project was part of former President Biddy Martin’s anti-racism plan, released in August 2020 in response to the #ReclaimAmherst movement. The movement, spearheaded by the Black Student Union and the Black Amherst Speaks Instagram account, culminated in a 16-page program outlining a set of institutional demands. The BSU believed such reforms were necessary to address Black students’ claims to the institution and create an environment more responsive to the needs of students of color. The document begins by noting that “the founders of Amherst College were slave owners,” and among other priorities, calls upon the college to issue an apology, pursue reparations, and “recognize, condemn, and educate its community members on its racist history.”

As a result of the campaign, Martin charged Kelly to write a broad and deep historical study of the college’s ties to slavery, including an investigation of whether or not the founders were themselves slaveholders. (Kelly said, in 2020, that they were not.)

Since beginning the research alongside a cohort of student researchers in January 2021, Kelly has found that Reverend David Parsons, one of the founding members of the college, held three people in slavery when he was pastor of the first church of Amherst.

Additional findings came by way of Anna Smith ’22, whose American studies senior thesis inspired further inquiries. Kelly looked into Israel Trask’s ties to slavery. Trask was a donor to Amherst College Charity Fund who served as college trustee and enslaved at least 250 people.

Previously, the college hosted Nicka Smith, an expert genealogist, to discuss the process of tracing the genealogy of previously enslaved populations in 2021 in response to findings regarding Trask’s association with slavery.

Through investigation into the college’s charity fund, Jirik concluded that white men who benefited from racial labor exploitation helped found and fund the college. For example, several founders owned and operated textile mills that turned southern cotton into finished goods.

Following Jirik’s presentation on the RHAC’s research, Lopes spoke about her own connections to the college’s project.

Lopes holds deep ancestral roots in the Pioneer Valley, noting that her indigenous ancestors have been here for millennia and her Black ancestors have been here for at least seven documented generations.

“We were not meant to mention our history, never mind be the ones to tell it or have authority on it,” Lopes said. “Mike Kelly invited my mother and I to the college archives so that we might understand more about my family’s history that has been appropriated at best and erased at worst.”

Lopes emphasized the personal importance of visiting the Frost exhibition curated by Ancestral Bridges.

“I still do not have the words to describe what it feels like to see my family listed on the walls of a place that they have been entwined with from the beginning and worked [at] under degrading conditions,” Lopes said. “This history is as important as Emily Dickinson and deserves a permanent space to be appreciated, explored, and evolved by future generations.”

Slocumb, the UMass doctoral student, was next to speak, and mentioned various projects underway regarding racial history in the Pioneer Valley that were intertwined with the college’s research.

She mentioned an exhibit that she curated at the Wistariahurst Museum called the “Reliquary of Blackness.” In Northampton, Slocumb has also been part of the Lesbians of Color Oral History, and she has explored projects in Hadley through the New England Museum Association and at UMass.

“My [Ph.D.] dissertation is called ‘the Reliquary of Blackness.’ I see Black history as holy. I see our stories as sacred,” Slocumb said. “And so why shouldn’t the museums see it as such; how do we get ourselves to that point? That’s part of my work.”

Another one of those projects has been launched by the town of Amherst, which has a reparations assembly and is the second town in the country to do so. Although RHAC has been in touch with this assembly since 2020, it is unclear what the financial commitment for reparations from the college will be, Kelly said.

Following the presentations by each of the speakers, a question-and-answer session addressed questions of reparations, emotional support given to the researchers from institutions, and renaming of campus buildings with ties to slavery.

One audience member, Felicia Lunquist, prompted emotional responses from the panelists by asking how these researchers are supported by their institutions, given the gravity of their work.

“The work is exhausting … These aren’t just memories or stories that were passed down to me, I actually walk with them every day. I can hear and smell [my ancestors],” Lopes said. “I’m very fortunate to have a community around me that uplifts me and gives me space to leave town when it’s necessary to get a break.”

Lunquist, the training manager for Think Again Training & Consulting, facilitates training and intergroup dialogue regarding diversity, equity and inclusion in her work.

“Often when we talk about reparations, people have a very narrow scope of what that looks like and the impact that it has on the community,” Lunquist said in an interview with The Student. “There’s so much more to it, including the individuals that are doing and performing the research … This is hard work. It's emotionally taxing, especially for those that identify as being people of color … I was very curious to know what is not only the college, but the community doing to serve and to hold space for the individuals doing that work.”

Lunquist said she attended the talk due to her interest in DEI efforts and identity as a woman of color in the Pioneer Valley. She also serves on the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, which has had conversations about reparations.

“The process of taking action doesn’t end in this one lecture,” she said. “It’s a continuum.”

Tre Woodall, a UMass graduate student helping Lopes with research, said it was important to have past, present, and future represented in the panel.

“It shows that people are taking steps forward rather than just examining the past and acknowledging it,” Woodall said.

Willow Delp ’26, who attended the event, wrote in a statement that her “biggest takeaway was that racist ideology, indigenous dispossession, and slavery were all cornerstones of the founding of Amherst College. Despite the fact that Massachusetts has historically been more progressive than the South, Amherst still benefited from slavery outside of state borders, essentially outsourcing forced labor.”

Delp added that “uncomfortable as it may be, it feels necessary to acknowledge the immense human toll that paved the way for the school we attend now.”

Delp asked a question about renaming buildings on campus, referencing the fact that Samuel Williston, the namesake of a dorm on the first-year quad, was heavily involved in the cotton industry.

“It’s a step Amherst College can take — and has taken, as demonstrated by the recent change in mascot name from the Jeffs to the mammoths,” Delp wrote. “Amherst’s prestige and influence allow it to make meaningful positive change.”

Delp added that learning about Lopes’ and Slocumb’s research was extremely important.

“I can’t stress my appreciation for that work enough,” Delp wrote.