Final Reflection

As a math major, I rarely get the chance for my personal and academic interests to collide. So this course has been a blessing to my academic and personal development and has provided plenty of perspective as my Amherst career comes to a close. I can truly leave this campus feeling that I have made a mark and left a legacy. At Amherst we are constantly working and constantly pushing for change, but we often fail to recognize where we came from and learn from those who came before us. Looking at the 1969 demands from the Afro-American Society demands I noticed how similar they were to the Amherst Uprising demands. I couldn’t help but think about how much the student body would have benefited if we had read them and been aware of the rich history of student activism on campus. This course gave me the unique opportunity to learn about black leaders and trailblazers from Amherst College and for that I am forever grateful.

If any space on campus holds importance to this thing we call the “Black experience at Amherst”, it is the Octagon. So with that being said there is so much left to do for this project. There are endless hidden treasures that have yet to be researched and explored. For example the mural across from Kevin Soltau’s remains a mystery. I would love to expand the project and research that mural. I would also like to look at other spaces on campus, like Charles Drew and eventually the Multicultural Resource Center.

After speaking with Sarah Smith from the library, I hope to make a small book that guides. It would include brief biographies about the faces on the mural as well as some general history of the Octagon and its development. Copies would present in the Octagon, Archives and possibly even the Multicultural Resource Center. The book would be a guide for future students to learn about alumni and another way to document black history at Amherst. In addition, I am currently working to set up a fundraising campaign for the Octagon and this will be an ongoing project the Black Student Union will take over in the fall. The money raised will go to renovating the Gerald Penny Center, including but not limited to repairing the heating system, purchasing new furniture, getting a dry erase board. Throughout my research, I found the Olio yearbooks, bio-files and building information folders to be particularly helpful. But this project also made me recognize the limitations of the archives and the power we have as students to ensure our stories are present in the archives. So another part of my project beyond this semester will be to ensure that documents found in the Octagon are placed into the archives for proper preservation.

A common thread that connected all parts of my research was power, resistance, perseverance and above all unity. Everything thing black students received on campus had to be fought for. Students had to place pressure on the administration and hold them accountable. But they recognized the power they possessed as a united student body. They banded together and made things happen. Now that I know what can be accomplished, I am excited for the possibilities of the Black Student Union and the Amherst black community.

Reflection #5

This week I really wanted to find more information about the Black Cultural Center library. I began to think about the importance of a library. At a recent BSU Meeting, we did a privilege walk and one of the statements was, “I grew up with more than 20 books in the house.” Many students stepped forward and I began to think about the importance of the presence of literature and printed materials in a home. In a lot of ways, the mere existence of and access to books in a home setting initiates a person’s relationship with reading and writing. Home reading was how I learned about black history since I was not being taught about those topics in school.

The Black Cultural Center was a second home for many students. On a campus built for white men, it was so crucial for black students to have a space with books written for and by people of color. So now I am able to understand how important it was for The Black Cultural Center to have its own library and this is reflected in the documents I have found thus far.

Back from one of my first responses, I listed the Afro-American Society demands from 1969. The library was included in the original vision of the space:

“III. Black Cultural Center

  1. Authorization to name rooms in the Center after prominent black people.
  2. Establishment of a budget of at least $15,000 for the yearly maintenance of the Center.
  3. Books for the library
  4. Records for record collection
  5. Speakers
  6. Artifacts
  7. All funds needed by the Afro-American Society for the completion of its plans now in the Dean’s office be allocated by Spring Vacation.
  8. Complete control of the Black Cultural Center”

Also on December 12, 1975, Janice C. Denton wrote a note to the Afro-American Society detailing a proposal for the development of the library. There was to be a book selection committee, which was to consist of the college librarian, a staff member, and a faculty member of the Black Studies Department. The letter also listed the types of books to be purchased, which include introductory Black Studies course books, periodicals and newspaper (which explains the stacks of newspapers in the Octagon) and advanced monographs. The students hoped the Back Cultural Center library would not only be regulated by Frost but also integrated into the Amherst College Library system.

While searching through the Octagon I found a series of documents dated back to December 6, 1980, titled “The Posner Fund”. One letter details the financial status of the library. In 1969 the Posner Family pledged $5,000 to be used for the purchase of books for the Black Cultural Center Library. This money was pledged in honor of Stanley I. Posner ’30, whose son, Lawrence D. Posner, also attended Amherst and graduated in 1959. The Lillian and Stanley Posner Foundation actually still exists, now under the name Posner-Wallace Foundation. When the gift was first given, the money was not established as an endowed fund. At the time, the criterion for an endowed fund was $3,000. But books were purchased leaving the balance at $1,833.75. So in April 1978 the president added $1,166 and established it as an endowed fund. The annual yield of the fund was $166, which allowed the group to pay for subscriptions and to continuously expand the library. Next week I will look into what happened to that fund and look more into the Posner family to understand their interest and connection to the Black Cultural Center.

Reflection #4

This week I looked through documents in the Octagon mural with Matt. We found a ton of interesting documents about the Afro- American Society/ Black Student Union. There are also loads of documents left to sort through.

 

I was able to find correspondence between Dean Jean Moss, The Office of the Dean of Students and The Black Student Union from 1988. There was discussion about the renovation of the Octagon, which included purchasing of equipment and the refurbishment of existing materials. From the letters I have read, Dean Moss appears to be the channel through which the students of the BSU connected with the administration. There is a letter for Dean Moss from June 9, 1988, where she shows support of the renovations and also emphasizes the lack of investment from the school for the center. She writes, “Indeed, if the students maintain their exemplary maintenance record, the college can enjoy another long period of low investment with high returns.”

 

Some of the requests include Security and Fire Protection, window replacement, adequate storage space, painted walls, carpeting, couches, chairs, wall outlets, a television, VCR, and a camera. I have actually have images of the furniture that was ordered, along with cost estimates. What I thought was funny was that Request #10 calls for the heating of the Octagon to be fixed. The students from 1988 state: “Currently during presentations, discussions, and other events the excessive noise from the heating pipes becomes disruptive. In order to make the GPCC more functional as a cultural center where presentations and other events take place we request this problem be corrected.” That request was never addressed since the heating in Octagon continues to rumble to the point where we can barely hear ourselves in meetings. Almost 30 years later, we still have the same issues. I also found the response from Dick Falcon (not sure of this official title) where he agrees to some renovations.

 

Something funny and interesting also came out of the Octagon images. I work for the MRC and for the last year we have been trying to find information about some artifacts (a shield and spear). I actually located the artifacts on the wall of the Octagon in some photos I found. Not sure of what year they are from but I believe it was 1988. I have contacted Adrianna Turner from the MRC and I am hoping to return those artifacts to the Gerald Penny Center this week.

 

I was also able to find a videotape of the dedication of the Black Cultural Center to Gerald Penny on October 12, 1974. I will bring the videotape to the Archives on Monday so we can view it. It is a Scotch videotape so the archives should most likely have the technology to view the tape.

 

The Octagon was dedicated the Black Cultural Center in the spring of 1968. Renovations began in the fall of 1969. I have not been able to find much visual information about the space from 1968-1988 so this upcoming week I hope to fill the twenty-year gap of information I am missing. Hopefully the dedication video will allow me to visually get a sense of the Octagon space in the 1970s.

Reflection #3

This week I pulled all the bio files of those depicted on the Octagon mural. I created a document of their current employment, hometown, major at Amherst and some interesting facts about each person. Below is the information I have so far. I will continue this research in the upcoming week. I also plan to add their dorms and campus involvement.

 

Bonnie Jenkins ‘82

Major(s): Black Studies, Psychology

Current Employment: Coordinator of Threat Reduction Program, US Department of State: Bureau of International Security

Bonnie Jenkins was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the Department of State’s Coordinator for Threat Reduction Programs in June 2009. She has focused on U.S. coordinated efforts on threat reduction in Africa, and works closely with the World Health Organization, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the International Criminal Police Organization. She’s led a successful career in politics, serving as General Counsel to the U.S. Commission to Assess the Organization of the Federal Government, a legal advisor to the Office of General Council at the ACDA, and the chair of the IAEA NUclear Security Training and SUpport Center Network.

 

Lisa Evans ‘85

Major(s): Black Studies; Political Science

Current Employment:

Evans worked as a paralegal for the Brooklyn office of the Legal Aid Society for four years before entering Columbia University of Law. During Evans’ time at Columbia, she was involved with various civil rights activities such as working for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Evans was also named the Charles Evans Hughes Fellow and recipient of the C. Bainbridge Smith Fund. Evans worked as a Pro Se Law Clerk for a bit before getting selected by the Attorney General’s Honors Program of the United States Department of Justice to become a Trial Attorney in the Civil Rights Division. In 1996, Attorney General Reno presented her with a “Special Achievement award in appreciate and recognition of meritorious acts for service performed on behalf of the Department.”

 

Allison Moore-Lake ‘82

Major(s): Sociology

Current Employment: Deputy Director for Westchester Children

Upon graduating from Amherst, Moore-Lake pursued a myriad of public service opportunities both in the United States and abroad. For three years, she served for the Peace Corps in West Africa, working as a Community Development Analyst. Upon coming back to New York City, she worked for numerous nonprofit organizations such as “City Volunteer Corps” and the “National Civic League”, providing support to the urban youth and community development projects. She received her Master of Business Administration degree in Finance and International Business from New York University. After a stint in the finance sector working for Toronto Dominion Bank, Moore-Lake wanted to get back into the nonprofit sector and community-based programming. After doing some consultancy work for nonprofits in New York City, Moore-Lake is now working as a director for Westchester Children.

 

Margaret Vendryes ‘84

Major(s): Fine Arts

Current Employment: Distinguished Lecturer at CUNY: York College

Vendryes received her M.A. in Art History from Tulane University and her PhD from Princeton University. Her dissertation looked at expressions of race, religion and sexual orientation in the art of America’s most celebrated black sculptor Richmond Barte.

 

Edward Jones ‘26 

Major(s): Chemistry

Jones is the first acknowledged, “out-in-the-open” Negro to graduate from college in the United States. Jones entered Amherst in 1822, the second year of the college’s existence. He came from Charleston, South Carolina. where his father was a “respectable freedman of that city, and kept a first class hotel on Broad Street next to St. Michael’s Church”. After college, Jones attended Andover Theological Seminary and the African Mission School in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1830 he was ordained a priest of the Episcopal church. Edward Jones died in England in 1864.

 

William Hastie ‘26 

Major(s): Political Science

William Hastie was born on November 17, 1904 in Knoxville, Tennessee. From 1937 until 1939, Hastie served as Federal Judge for the United States District Court for the Virgin Islands. This appointment marked the first time that a black held the position of federal judge: only 74 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the 154th year of the Republic.

 

Mercer Cook ‘25

Major(s): French

Mercer Book, born in Washington, D.C. in 1903, graduated from Dunbar High School in 1920 and from Amherst, Phi Beta Kappa in the class of 1925. He later became a United States Ambassador, scholar, leading authority on African and French literature, and a professor at Howard University for over forty years.

 

Cuthbert Tuffy Simpkins ‘69

Major(s): Chemistry

Cuthbert Simpkins was born on August 20, 1947 in Chicago, Illinois. Simpkins was one of the original officers of the Amherst College Afro-American Society.  He is a physician, biographer and inventor, best known for his work on shock and violence prevention and for his 1975 biography of the jazz musician John Coltrane.

 

Charles Drew ‘26 

Major(s):

Charles Drew was born on June 3, 1904 in Washington, D.C. While at Amherst, Drew was captain of the Amherst varsity track team and narrowly missed a spot on the United States Olympic Team.  He was an African-American physician who developed ways to process and store blood plasma in “blood banks.” He directed the blood plasma programs of the United States and Great Britain in World War II, but resigned after a ruling that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated. He died on April 1, 1950.

 

Tara (Fuller)  Lamourt ‘80

Major(s): Psychology

Current Employment: Teacher/Tutor at St. Benedict’s Prep School through Catapult Learning

When she entered Amherst, she was very naive about the realities of elite college environments. However, she managed to meet challenges head on, in her sophomore year becoming the first black women to be elected to the student assembly. She was also the first black woman to write for The Amherst Student, reporting primarily on racism on campus. In her junior year, she was elected to be the first black woman to serve as an advisor to a dormitory. Although her major was psychology, she also studied acting, becoming the first black woman to have performed in the Weston Theater Playhouse. After graduation, she took up a position as an instructor for autistic children at the Teacher-Therapist Developmental Institute in Chicago. She later graduated with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago in 1983. Finding a passion in education, Ms. Lamourt has taught at a Red Cross Shelter and the Saturday Art Program in New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Recently, she’s been an Art Teacher at the St. Benedict’s Preparatory School, Newark, New Jersey.

 

Denise Francois ‘80 

Major(s): Political Science

After graduating in 1980, Denise deferred going to law school for a year and worked as an investigator tor for the Virgin Islands Department of Human Services. She graduated from the University of San Diego in May of 1984 with the J.D. degree. She is a member of both the State Bar of California and the Virgin Islands Bar Association, becoming president of the latter since January of 1996. As president, she also serves on the Judicial Council of the Virgin Islands. Francois is a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and the American Bar Association.

 

Sonya Clark ‘89

Major(s): Psychology with concentration in African Studies

As an undergraduate she was interned in social psychology, specifically identity formation. After graduating from Amherst in the Spring of 1980, she found herself in West Africa, at Cote d’Ivorie, where she entered a program at The Parsons School of Design, and studied art, music, religion, and traditional textile designs. SHe enrolled with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in May of 1993 obtained the B.A. degree in Fine Arts.

 

In addition this week the BSU E-Board and I cleaned the Octagon closet. We found a ton of old newspapers and images. We spent time just moving all of the documents so this upcoming week I plan to begin to look through all the material in the Octagon. Just from the few things I saw, there is definitely some interesting information in the Octagon files.

Reflection #2

Last week I focused on the Octagon before it became the Black Cultural Center. I was able to find tons of images of the Octagon when it was Woods Cabinet. There are images of all Edward Hitchcock’s geological findings and tons of images of the Babbott room. So this week I looked for information and images of the Octagon closer to the 1960s. Interestingly enough, once we hit the 1960s (when the Octagon became the Black Cultural Center) there are no images available of the interior of the Octagon in the Archives. I believe there are some images inside of the Octagon storage closet so this week I plan to look through that. I was able to find an article written about the Afro-American Society on September 30, 1968 in the Amherst Student. The article is entitled “Afro-Am Making Plans for Cultural Center”. The article details the early planning process. The approval by the Space Committee was given in the spring of 1968. Jesse War and two of his classmates began the planning process shortly there after. The original vision for the space was the main room being a social and exhibit room for African artifacts. There was also an idea for a mural depicting themes of Black life in America. Dana Chandler was hired to draw up the basic plan of the Black Cultural Center, so I going to try and find her contact information.

The Afro- American Society presented a list of demands to the Instruction Committee of the Board of Trustees at 10:30 am on Saturday, February 22, 1969. I was able to find the original list of demands in the Amherst Student. The demands include renovation of the advisory system, hiring of a black dean, curricular changes, establishment of a black studies program, summer immersion programs, etc. But more directed at my topic, the students demanded several things in regard to a Black Cultural Center. Here is an excerpt:

“III. Black Cultural Center

  1. Authorization to name rooms in the Center after prominent black people.
  2. Establishment of a budget of at least $15,000 for the yearly maintenance of the Center.
  3. Books for the library
  4. Records for record collection
  5. Speakers
  6. Artifacts
  7. All funds needed by the Afro-American Society for the completion of its plans now in the Dean’s office be allocated by Spring Vacation.
  8. Complete control of the Black Cultural Center”

These demands were not acted on immediately since I found another article written in November 1969 where the students continued to ask for funding for the Black Cultural Center in addition to complete control of the center.

In addition this week I continued to identify the missing faces on the mural located in the Gerald Penny Center of the Octagon. I was able to make significant progress in this identification by scrolling through past Olio’s. Unfortunately I am still missing one face. He was originally labeled as William Davis Jr, ’63, who was a trustee of the college. But after doing some research I realized that the photographs didn’t match up. I believe the image was commissioned by Dean Boykin East in 2007 and completed by a local artist, so I should be able to get the information about the last image soon. Currently in the archives, there is limited information about the Octagon murals, so the labeled image on the next page will eventually be a great addition to the archives. Next week I will also look in the documents of the Octagon closet to find articles and information written about  the other mural in the Octagon.

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Reflection #1

I started by looking into the Octagon before it became the Black Cultural Center. The Octagon was built in 1847-1848 and was designed by Henry A. Sykes who was an architect and contractor. Former Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock was largely responsible for the construction of the Octagon. Hitchcock describes the Octagon (Woods Cabinet): “It was not until the erection of the Woods Cabinet [the Octagon] in 1 848, that an exhibition of good taste in the buildings where young men are educated, was thought promotive of the main object instead of needless waste.” The list of donors can be found on a plaque in the Octagon and a total of $8,437 dollars was raised to build the Octagon. The Octagon housed the College’s scientific collection and the Lawrence Observatory. The original building included only the octagonal tower and the two-story cabinet. The one-story octagonal room (the room with the television) and the wooden wing at the east (restroom space) were later additions. For this information I referenced The Story of the Campus and Buildings of Amherst College by Stanley King.

I also focused on the mural located in the Gerald Penny Center of the Octagon. This week the original artist returned to campus, so I used the Alumni List Serv and the help of Kevin Soltau ’01 to identify each person depicted. I have attached the image below, which has the mural labeled. There are still a few faces that I need to investigate. I was also able to find some information about their time at Amherst. For example, I learned that the first black woman to be a resident counselor was Tara (Fuller) Lamourt ’80, who is depicted on the mural. Also her twin sister was the co-creator of the Sabrina’s A cappella Group.

I also learned that the Octagon was a venue for several weddings of Amherst College students. For example Uthman Muhammad ‘70 and his wife were married in the space. So this upcoming week I hope to really look into publications about the Octagon and how the repurposing of the space was portrayed to the Amherst community. I also hope to continue looking for flyers, event posters, to get a sense of how the space was used.

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