What comes next for the College
January 10, 2021
Unlike with Johns Hopkins, the fact that Ephraim Williams was an enslaver has never been a secret. It comes up multiple times in both Ebony & Ivy by Wilder and Colonel Ephraim Williams: A Documentary Life (1970) by Wyllis E. Wright, Class of 1925. It is a large focus of Castro’s 2015 paper, which is housed in the College archives and has been cited in The Gritty Berkshires: A People’s History from the Hoosac Tunnel to Mass MoCA (2019) by Maynard Seider. And it is abundantly clear from primary sources.
Yet the College has never systematically addressed its connections to slavery. Whereas institutions like Brown and Princeton have commissioned reports about their historical links to slavery, the College has so far not done anything of the sort.
That may change now that the faculty, staff, and students on the CDC are spending this academic year addressing institutional history, especially the College’s historical ties to slavery and colonialism. Ephraim Williams’ history is just one of many areas of focus. The committee has also been examining the occupation of Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican homelands, the marginalization of Williamstown’s Black residents, and alums’ role in the colonization of Hawai‘i, among other topics.
“Even if we’re not a part of it or we don’t represent the identity group that did do this stuff, I think it’s important to recognize that we all hold privilege by being in this institution,” CDC Co-chair Essence Perry ’22 said. “There has to be some reckoning that the person you are now is only because of all of these people behind you, and what you do in the future very much depends on your understanding of that.”
In both an all-College email in September that discussed the CDC’s work and an interview with the Record, President Maud S. Mandel, who is not on the CDC, underscored the necessity of the College’s examination of its institutional history.
“It’s very important for the College to take stock of its history — I think that as a historian, as an educator, and as a president,” Mandel said. “It’s important because who you are in the present is an outgrowth of who you were in the past. I think you can only aspire to change if you first take full measure of where you’ve come from.”
While the CDC is conducting some historical research itself, it is concentrating more on how to synthesize and present the history that generations of College community members have already uncovered, said Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Professor of Latina/o Studies and Religion Jacqueline Hidalgo, who is also a co-chair of the committee. The CDC will publish its recommendations by the end of the academic year, according to Hidalgo.
One institutional response under discussion is the payment of reparations to groups that the College has harmed, Hidalgo said, though she stressed, “we’re a long way from making them happen.”
“We have discussed reparations not only for descendants of those enslaved by the Williams family but also for the descendants of local communities who suffered from anti-Black violence during Williams’ history,” she wrote in a follow-up email to the Record. She also mentioned the possibility of scholarships to support students from the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, as well as Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) students.
“There’s also … other kinds of broader projects of reparations that might not look so strictly financial but would likely entail financial investment,” she said.
“I just hope people are comfortable with that term ‘reparations’ and it flows off the tongue easily,” said Assistant Vice President for Campus Engagement in the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Bilal Ansari, who is also a co-chair of the CDC. “Because sometimes it’s a hard thing to grapple with. That’s one of the things we hope to grapple with.”
Then there’s the issue of names. Ephraim Williams’ name and the moniker “Eph” are ubiquitous at the College. A few alums have reached out to Alumni Relations and the CDC’s subcommittee on alums asking the College to weigh the significance of its name, according to Hidalgo. “They pose it as a question… ‘Does knowing this history about Ephraim Williams impact our feeling about the name Williams as a college?’” Hidalgo said.
Understanding the College’s history, and evaluating the meaning of it, is important for students especially, Murphy said.
“It’s students who will be doing the work in the future to figure all of this out and to make decisions about how we venerate someone like Ephraim Williams, and Amos Lawrence, and other people whose names are attached to buildings, whose names are attached to endowments,” he said. “Ephraim Williams is the place to start, and then everything kind of radiates outward from there.”