Scholar Details College’s Historical Ties to the Colonization Movement

The speaker, a postdoc at the University of Missouri, Columbia, detailed the college’s connections to the American Colonization Society, which sought to relocate emancipated slaves and freeborn people of color to Liberia.

Scholar Details College’s Historical Ties to the Colonization Movement
Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist and graduate in the class of 1834, was a member of the American Colonization Society. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Guest speaker Andy Hammann, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Missouri, Columbia, gave a lecture on the history of debates surrounding slavery and race at the college on Tuesday, April 9.

Hamman detailed the fact that many influential members were sympathizers of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which aimed to repatriate emancipated slaves and freeborn people of color to Africa in the 19th century.

Both President Michael Elliott and members of the Steering Committee on Reckoning with the Racial History of Amherst College were in attendance.

Hammann opened the talk with a description of the ACS, whose notable members included Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshall.

“It was the expectation of the ACS … that future offers of emancipation would be conditioned on the enslaved agreeing to leave the United States. If they didn’t agree, they remained enslaved,” said Hammann.

According to Hammann, the group was active for a large part of Amherst College’s founding years, with many Amherst students and professors being involved. Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward, was a founding member of the ACS in Amherst and the college’s treasurer. Henry Ward Beecher, abolitionist clergyman and member of Amherst class of 1834, was also a member.

Hammann emphasized that Amherst’s case was not unique.

“The Amherst story of black expatriation advocacy is a subset of a much larger collegiate story, a story that includes students, professors, trustees, and presidents for many, many American universities,” Hammann explained. “They were spreading and reinforcing the idea that black freedom was an enormous problem in American society.”

Aaron Watkins ’26 said the talk gave him a better sense of the college’s past.

“It’s about making history closer to our everyday lives and realities. For instance, Henry Ward Beecher has a statue here on campus,” Watkins said. “It’s easy to walk past these things and separate history from our current reality, so hearing how these real individuals … moved around in their world and interacted with the institutions of slavery and expatriation helps to put the school into context.”

Elliott followed up on that sentiment, emphasizing the importance of shining a light on the college’s past.

“History always reminds us how complicated the past is. It complicates the history of a college and reminds us of how ideas that might seem correct to one generation come up very, very short for future generations,” Elliot said. “You know, examining history like this, for me, gives me a great sense of humility. As a reminder that even on a campus like this one, where we search for truth, we can be profoundly wrong sometimes.”

Elliott said that the work is ongoing.

“You can look out for focus groups and listening sessions so that we can think about what students might want to see in the future visible campus, as well as opportunities to get involved in the research and even get involved in projects of commemoration,” Elliott said.