The Universities Studying Slavery (USS) consortium continues to grow, and that growth insistently reminds us how the intertwined histories of slavery and racism in American history cannot be geographically delimited. Today, we welcome Amherst College to the movement. Their work and the histories they have uncovered demonstrate anew how the business of bondage connected even institutions in free states with enslavement and plantation agriculture in distant slave states. Finally, Amherst College’s project reminds us that the work of consortium schools continues to expand well beyond studying slavery—our collective investigations now include race and racism in eras long after 1865.
Amherst College is a private, not-for-profit, four-year undergraduate college located in Amherst, Massachusetts, with an enrollment of around 1,850 students from 48 states, as well as Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and 66 other countries. Founded in 1821, the College recently celebrated its bicentennial. While Amherst College alumni include famous abolitionists such as Henry Ward Beecher (Class of 1834) and nearly 300 students and alumni who fought for the Union during the Civil War, initial research into the history of the College has exposed ties to slavery.
In August 2020, Amherst launched an ambitious Anti-Racism Plan that included the formation of a committee to conduct a “racial history of Amherst” to determine the nature and scope of the College’s ties to slavery and explore issues of race in College history more generally. The Steering Committee on a Racial History of Amherst was formally established at the end of 2020 and includes faculty, students, staff, and subject experts. The committee is co-chaired by Catherine Epstein, Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Henry Steele Commager Professor of History, and Michael Kelly, Head of Archives & Special Collections. With the support of student research assistants, in May 2021 they launched A Racial History of Amherst to share research findings and links to primary and secondary sources. They now have a full-time post-doctoral research fellow, Michael Jirik, dedicated to this project
The College learned that Colonel Israel Trask, a donor, and trustee of the College from 1821 until his death in 1835, enslaved hundreds of people on cotton plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana in partnership with his brothers, beginning in 1807. They also discovered that earlier published histories of Amherst College systematically downplayed Trask’s direct involvement in those plantations, despite primary source evidence demonstrating that he was deeply involved in their operation until the end of his life.
Although Trask came from a prominent Massachusetts family and served in the state legislature, he is buried on the family plantation in Woodville, Mississippi. An Amherst College student writing a senior thesis about Trask received funding from the College to spend several weeks doing research in archives in Mississippi and Louisiana. Her posts on their Racial History blog provide a rich account of those findings. Amherst College continues its research on Trask, his plantations, and the descendants of those he enslaved. The Steering Committee on a Racial History of Amherst also organized a campus visit and lecture by genealogist, photographer, and documentarian Nicka Smith who has traced her own ancestry to people enslaved on the Trask plantations.
Wonderful to have Amherst College join the team, we know we will both enjoy learning from them about their project and that the consortium will, as always, provide crucial guidance as their program continues.