In honor of Abraham Parsons: Reckoning work

Bilal Ansari

   How do we, as a College, reckon with our troubled history with local Black residents? One harrowing story is that of Abraham Parsons. There was nothing ordinary about his life and death, despite reports that he died of senility or natural causes after living a good long life to over 100 years old. He was born to Robert and Diana Parsons of Stockbridge, Mass. He was married to Eliza M. Alcombright, and they raised a daughter and son, Mary and Theodore, in the White Oaks section of Williamstown.  According to Dr. Frank Olds’s medical record, Abraham Parsons died due to severe tissue damage in his brain. The local doctor, Frank Olds, class of 1876, knew Mr. Parsons as one of the hundreds of Williams students who mockingly called him “Abe the Bunter.” Many fraternity yearbooks and articles chronicled how they hired him to break objects over his head as their entertainment. For example, they enjoyed showing him a cheese block and clandestinely replacing it with wood or stone.

   The legend of “Abe the Bunter” is demoralizing and inhumane but normal under the White gaze. Frank Olds, a sophomore pre-med student in 1873, never experienced Abraham Parson as a man. Nor as the father of his 18 years old daughter Mary whose wedding was the summer after her high school graduation that year. Frank Olds, as a college student and fraternity brother, this Black man was an object of entertainment, experiment, and eugenics fascination about the thickness of his skull. Frank Olds did not acquire an ethical concern at Williams College as a student nor later as a professional adult. The dignity and humanity of Black life just did not matter. Upon the death notification of Mr. Parsons, Dr. Olds did not seek to reach out to Mary and Theodore, his local next of kin; instead, he rushed with two Williams students to take possession of Abraham Parson’s body. Then after his autopsy, he took the skull to measure its width and attempted to sell it for a profit to Harvard; they declined with “Not interested.” If you consider this a human being, the subsequent moral act is to lay his skull remains to complete rest for decency and in honor of the family. Instead, Dr. Old’s held on to this skull until it was found in his attic after his death by his wife, who thought less of the family but more of the Williams Club in New York City who would enjoy the good times had with this relic of the legend “Abe the Bunter.” In a 1954 Williams Alumni Review article penned by C.D. Makepeace, class of 1900, he retells this story as an eyewitness, a student participant with Dr. Frank who invited him to seize the body, and as an alum who viewed the skull on display in the Williams Club.

  The Parsons home still stands on Henderson Road (on private property) and should be toured as part of the First Days curriculum of understanding our troubled history. Imagine the impact on students at the College where the roots of anti-Black racism are acknowledged, and the Black residents celebrated and honored. What if the incoming classes of Root, Leading Minds, Exploring the Arts, Williams Outdoor Orientation For Living as First-years, and Where Am I? understood the history of the College and the Town? We must tell this story to contextualize the beginnings of anti-Black sentiment at this institution and how deeply connected they are to the history of the College. This rise of anti-Black sentiment with ten recorded incidents this year is not a surprise — the “Village Beautiful” has always been backdropped and surrounded by “Mountains of Ugly.” 

   A rare few faculty engage with this local history; however, recently, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Allison Guess and her classes “AFR 234: Race, Land, and Settler (Racial) Capitalism: Ongoing Topics in (Dis)/(Re)Possession and “AFR 235: Race, Land, Dis/Re-Possession: Critical Topics in Environmental Injustice and Subaltern Geographies” have taken President Maud Mandel’s charge to study and seek a racial reckoning with troubled local histories between the College and Williamstown’s indigenous and Black residents very seriously. Monday, May 8, 2023, a teach-in was organized by Professor Guess to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the roots of our anti-Black sentiments. However, as a College, we need more research on Ishmael Thomas and Dinah Jackson, our heroes.

The Davis Center is here to support and celebrate such student research, so thank you, students, Professor Guess, and President Mandel, for this vital work of reckoning and creating a space for healing as our legacy and history together. I wrote this to honor our beloved Abraham Parsons; God rest his soul, elevate his memory, and celebrate faculty-led scholarship and student-led activism of such reckoning work.

Bilal Ansari is the College’s assistant vice president of campus engagement.