The past is present

History is our repository of information about the past and, as such, can offer explanations about the present. As a repository, history has the special capacity to reveal hidden facts of injustice and patterns of social discrepancies. More indirectly, history is critical to the creation of ethnic and social groupings given that shared past experience, or the perception of shared past experience, is the strongest rationale for the existence of a group. Finally, history and memory are the containers for grievance.
Having been exposed to and inspired by the seemingly unexplored stories of Williams African American, Latina and Asian female students from the early 1970s when they arrived at the College, I was prompted to document this historical narrative. I hoped to enlighten my peers about a history pertinent to their experience and existence on the Williams campus. I wished to explore the process of integration and engagement of these women, their experience, their achievement and the corresponding historical and contemporary implications.

Therefore, I called upon two of my history and sociology colleagues (and best friends) Giana Hutton ’10 and Elise Johnson ’10 to join me in this effort. Starting off as an idea for a Winter Study 99 project, our research has garnered enough attention and credibility from alumni, faculty and members of the administration that we are carrying our research into our final semester at Williams as a history independent study. It is through this process of tracing our “lineage” at Williams that traumas were revealed, re-lived and reflected upon.

Part of our research came from simply going to Sawyer and dragging out book after book of old Record articles from the ’60s and ’70s, as Williams announced and prepared for the transition into coeducation. As we rummaged through page after page of paternalistic writing we uncovered something very interesting: While some 30 years have passed, the conversation was the same as it is today. It is in this sense that we realized that the social and political trauma that affected the women before us has perhaps contributed to an ongoing sense of victimization, cultural elements and a shared sense of the past. As we made these connections, we needed context, and we needed our history.

This was the hope when we embarked on this historical reclamation of a somewhat lost and underrepresented history, an important tale of our institution’s first women and women of color. Hoping to explore such facets, we conducted 25 interviews with women of color from the classes of 1971 to 1979, who now live all over the world leading amazingly fascinating lives. And in the process, the following questions were addressed: Who entered and who finished? Did Williams provide a place of learning for women of color inside the classroom and outside? In what ways have our experiences mirrored those of women before us? In what ways has Williams evolved and in what aspects does it continue to fail?

As women of color, pursuing our own experiences in the shadows and footsteps of the courageous women before us, these questions were vital and this story was ours to tell. As one alumna so insightfully stated, “We were the experiment … so it’s hard to say or blame Williams for not properly offering resources for supporting the students … How much of this was institutionalized? It’s not the academics that has people flunking or leaving Williams … It’s the acculturation process.”

Since I hoped to discover and document an untold history, I was surprised to find out that the history I sought was being lived around me. The stories these women told me, while from a different time, were the stories of my contemporaries. What we discovered was the silence of these women’s place in the historical narrative of Williams, which mimicked the silence and underrepresentation they encountered as students in the 1970s and perhaps still do. Entering the confines of one of America’s oldest and best educational institutions, these women bore the responsibility of a nation’s social struggles, an institution’s change in tradition and a world’s racial prejudices. As one alumna from the Class of 1977 reminisced, “At times it was like we [were] invisible inside the classroom and certainly outside. At one point a girl … stared at me too long. She asked me where my tail was, because she was told black people still had them … You just got to get a place in your head where you can understand or else this place will eat you up badly.”

As I look at the new faces of women of color walking through the Frosh Quad I hear the painful retelling of such stories, along with feelings of isolation, echoes of ignorant inquisitions and feelings of displacement or unworthiness. It makes you wonder if these are the stories of old Williams or of our Williams.