Amherst is today engaged in a new process of dialogue regarding the problem of racism, in the schools and in our community at large. (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
In the course of some research on other topics in Amherst history, I stumbled upon this 1951 photo from the local paper, depicting a minstrel show, with performers in blackface:
Among the participants in the show are many notables of South Amherst, some deeply involved with the South Congregational Church--including the Minister, Rev. Arnold Kenseth (Chaplain and later Instructor in English at the University of Massachusetts) and his wife Betty--and members of the Atkins family, founders of the popular agricultural enterprise and grocery market. It was also Howard Atkins who donated land for the site of the Munson Library, next to the Church.
To see such a picture today is be thrown back into a very different world. No doubt the participants thought what they were doing was all in good fun, or even some kind of tribute to another culture--perhaps much the way some people still think of the images of Native Americans appropriated as emblems of sports teams. Times have changed. Thankfully.
The minstrel show remains shocking but becomes less surprising when one recalls that it was only around this time that the Lord Jeffery Inn, associated with Amherst College, finally and reluctantly began to admit African Americans as guests. Times have changed. Thankfully.
The latter episode, which appears in Essays on Amherst's History (Amherst: The Vista Trust, 1978), draws upon an Amherst College senior thesis by David Chaplin on "Amherst's Negroes" (1953). As the essay summarizes (p. 297):
Chaplin also found that most whites in Amherst refused to believe that any real discrimination existed; as one citizen explained, 'I don't know anything about the Negroes here, but I do know that there isn't any discrimination'On second thought, maybe the times have not changed so much, after all.