Slavery and the College

January 10, 2021

Selena Castro ’17 traced the establishment of the College to the stolen labor of the Black people Ephraim Williams enslaved in “the mountains! the mountains!: Slavery in Williamstown, MA,” a research paper written in 2015 for Chair and Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang’s “Theories and Methods of American Studies” class.

“[I]f his ‘Negro servants’ provided labor in his household and on his land, then they had direct ties to the money that was used to purchase plots of land in what is now Williamstown, as well as to establish the free school, and consequently Williams College,” Castro wrote.

The College’s ties to slavery did not end with Ephraim Williams, who died decades before the College was founded. Benjamin Simonds, a founder of Williamstown and the College, enslaved a man named Ishmael Thomas and forced him to take Simonds’ place in the Continental Army in order to be freed, Ansari said. Simonds also enslaved a second man named Hartford, and possibly more. Amos Lawrence, namesake of Lawrence Hall, was a wealthy cotton merchant who thus profited from slavery, according to Kevin Murphy, the senior curator of American and European art at the Williams College Museum of Art. 

Students at the College did start an anti-slavery society in 1823, the first of its kind in Massachusetts, according to Castro’s paper. But it ultimately advocated sending Black people to Africa rather than letting them live freely within the United States. Castro cites a letter the society wrote in 1826 that argues that “that it would be better for free people of color themselves, as well as for the country, if they were conveyed to the colonies in Africa.”

“Though efforts are made to improve the moral and intellectual condition of the few negroes among us, by affording the means of knowledge imparted in our daily and Sabbath schools; yet a greater proportion of them, compared with the white population, are yearly returned as convicts in our penitentiaries,” the letter reads.

Wang, who co-teaches “Uncovering Williams” with Murphy and has for years taught courses that deal with the College’s institutional history, said that the College should commission a report on its historical ties to slavery. “But more than a report, I want to see concrete steps taken today to address the racial inequality and the alienation and marginalization of students of color and faculty of color,” she said. 

She pointed to the incidents described on the @blackatwilliams Instagram account and during the 2019 boycott of English courses as recent examples of racism that members of the College community have faced. She stressed that six BIPOC women have left the faculty in the last two years.

“You take the history, and you try to do better,” she said. “But you do it in a way that’s actually going to be concrete and material and not just the rhetoric of the diversity statement or another committee.”

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