Threads of purple at Black colleges

Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Years after establishing a medical career and starting a family, a Williams College alumnus received a surprise package from his mother’s sister, which contained an unexpected piece of Williams history. He shared this in a recollection by Black members of the Class of 1975 of their time in the Berkshires when they were a pioneering group.

The parcel contained a yellowed photograph of a six-year-old girl — who was born the year after the Civil War in 1867 — and a letter from his great-aunt Sadye, telling him that the girl was his great-grandmother and that she had graduated from Alabama’s Talladega College, a historically Black college, which was also his parents’ alma mater. The letter divulged even more shocking news:

“Talladega was established in 1867 by the American Mission (sic) Association. The AMA was formed by young men at Williams College.” 

Dr. Frank O. Richards, Jr. ’75, recipient of the College’s 1998 Bicentennial Award for his role in fighting river blindness, said:

“I decided that with the connection to Williams in my family I was indeed a legacy student . . . but once or twice removed. Like slaves in the family.”

In many states, it had been illegal to teach slaves to read and write. By 1879, 150,000 pupils in the South were being taught by graduates of American Missionary Association normal schools and colleges. And by 1888, the Association’s schools had educated 7,000 teachers, according to the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University.

Within three years, the American Missionary Association had chartered seven institutions for higher learning.

The organization also helped to establish Howard University. It contributed the entire support for its theological department. 

Hampton University, in Virginia, was founded under the auspices of the American Missionary Association in 1868  and headed by Samuel Chapman Armstrong, Williams Class of 1862, according to the 1910 Catalogue of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Armstrong recommended Hampton graduate, Booker T. Washington, to head Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, according to Virginia Museum of History and Culture. Washington led Tuskegee for more than 30 years. He became a leading voice of African Americans.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Armstrong, a Civil War general, was the son of missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which was formed by College alumni.

Armstrong’s “photographs, letters, periodicals, documents, and ephemera” formed a great part of the Williams College Museum of Art’s 2018 exhibit on its “complicated, centuries-long relationship with the people of Hawai’i.”

The exhibit, titled “The Field Is the World:” Williams, Hawai’i and Material Histories in the Making, elicited a spectrum of feelings from pain at the destruction of culture to delight at discovering written verses in Hawaiian that had not been read in more than a century. The Haystack Monument on Mission Park Drive caused mixed reactions. It marks the Haystack Prayer Meeting in 1806, when five students sought shelter from lightning and were struck by the impulse to preach Protestant teachings abroad.

Nineteenth-century missionaries imposed their worldview on others. We, in the 21st century, have the opportunity to learn and embrace the world views of those whom we have encountered in the past.

It is time for the College to get to know the students and professors at the Black colleges with which alumni had a connection in founding. An exchange of a group of students and a professor, for example, would be instrumental in broadening cultural boundaries. The violent and traumatic history of the United States will perpetuate itself until we break the cycle, which is fed by fear and ignorance.

Black Americans are not known, either by default or by choice, by the larger community. When there is an unjustified police killing of a Black person, journalists and social media hounds humanize the victim: Tyre Nichols, 29, beaten to death after a Jan. 7 traffic stop in Memphis, Tenn., loved his four-year-old son, sunsets, and photography. 

The dehumanization of Black people began with slavery. We must break the cycle of violent and traumatic history.

A Black American, I left the States in 1994. Europeans ask me to explain the perplexing racism that Black Americans still face. It is hurtful, shameful and dangerous that we have not learned from our past. 

Despite the end of the bloody U.S. Civil War in 1865 and passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution — which guaranteed 4 million newly freed slaves the same civil rights as those of whites — freed people suffered untold violence in the South. 

The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau) was formed to transition the former slaves to citizens. Thwarted from protecting the legal and land rights of former slaves, it eventually focused on establishing networks of schools and churches.

“Thrown in with General (Oliver Otis) Howard, (Samuel Chapman Armstrong) was led by the influence of that philanthropist to take charge of the Freedmen’s Bureau at Hampton, Virginia,” according to Denison, who lived in East College dormitory at the College in 1860, in his 10-page homage to his friend, Sam Armstrong, in The Atlantic (January 1894). “Some ten thousand black refugees were there huddled together, mostly in wretched hovels, on confiscated land. The United States government issued them rations, the American Missionary Association sent them missionaries.” 

General Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedmen’s Bureau and a founder of Howard University, said in his Autobiography of Oliver Otis Howard, major general, United States army : volume 2 (1908):

“The opposition to Negro education made itself felt everywhere in a combination not to allow the freed men any room or building in which a school might be taught. In 1865, 1866, and 1867, mobs of the baser classes at intervals and in all parts of the South occasionally burned school buildings and churches used as schools, flogged teachers or drove them away and, in a number of instances, murdered them.”

According to Richards, who is the senior advisor to health programs at The Carter Center in Atlanta: 

“Many students and alums taught in these new institutions when they were first created. The jobs were hardship posts. Ephs risked their lives as they faced pushback.”

Richards threw out a challenge:

“Haystack and the AMA are wonderful Williams’ legacies. They show us that, for more than 150 years, many Williams students have been dedicated activists in the Movement for Black Lives. 

I’d like to strengthen our links to these HBCUs. These places of learning all have threads of purple in them.”

Cynthia Adina Kirkwood ’76 is a writer and journalist living in Portugal.

Correction: This op-ed was updated at 11:00 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2023, as a previous version incorrectly stated John H. Denison graduated from the College in 1890. He actually lived in the East College dormitory in 1860.