Monday, November 17, 2014

Back When Amherst Was Not So "Progressive": Color Lines and Blackface

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:

It is reproduced in Leave the Light Burning: South Amherst, Massachusetts, by W. H. Atkins (1871-1952), ed. Marjorie Atkins Elliott (McFarland, WI: Community Publications, 1973).

Evidently the members of the "Deep South Amherst Minstrels" considered their name very clever: they are from the southern end of the town--get it? (Did geography or just good sense prevent residents of my neighborhood in the utter nothernmost end of town from descending to such depths?)

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.

Rev. Kenseth has the distinction of being one of only 14 Amherst authors, past and present, to have one of the Town's "Literary Trails" named in his honor.

As for Howard Atkins, he is quoted as advocating change in the late 1970s:
I plan to build a planned unit development for 750 people. Amherst still has great potential for growth. This is certainly not a small town now, and we can't go back in time. . . . The town consists of a highly variegated population with conflicting thought, and it is difficult to arrive at a consensus on any subject which challenges one of these groups who are vocal. What I mean by vocal is that people talk up a lot more than ten years ago. . . .
     I have lived in Amherst all my life, as did my ancestors. I am selling some land to those who want to buy, blacks or whites. This is a growing town, it wants to grow. Now I have sold some land my family has farmed for a couple of generations, and it is not a happy occasion when I consider what this land has symbolized for quite a time. But you must remember that events and demands change rapidly, and very few things remain the same year after year after year.
--cited in Essays on Amherst's History (Amherst: The Vista Trust, 1978), 286
(attributed to an anonymous town leader who, by the description can be no one else)
It is, I suppose, encouraging to see that the man who put on blackface in the 1950s would, a generation later, announce his willingness to sell his land to blacks as well as whites (though why one would at this late date speak of what was both right and legally required as if it were some kind of grand gesture is a subject for another conversation).

A different world?

To see the of the minstrel show 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.

The point of mentioning the minstrel show is not for the sake of scoring easy moral points and feeling superior to our predecessors. Quite the contrary. Presumably decent enough people in other regards, the participants were unable to see that their action was deeply offensive. How will we and our attitudes and behaviors fare in some 60 years?

The Town of Amherst, under the guidance of Media & Climate Communications Specialist Carol Ross, has launched its "Amherst Together" project, in order to begin a conversation intended to "advanc[e] community, collaboration, equity and inclusion." As a first step, it is asking residents to take a survey about attitudes toward the community and one another.

{updated II.15}


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Hm... your "Sharethis" button doesn't transfer the link to the post but the blog's URL instead. A bit of an inconvenience that.


Jim Wald said...

Thanks for reading and sharing. I know what happened: If, as seems to be the case here, you just land on the homepage and try to share the top article, the URL is that of the homepage. But if you navigate to the individual article, the URL shared is that of the article alone.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Oh... that's it, probably. Thanks.