Amherst College graduates 470, remembers first African-American to be chosen as class speaker 100 years ago

Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2015

AMHERST — Several thousand family members, friends and well-wishers gathered on white folding chairs in the shade of a couple dozen oak trees on the Amherst College quad Sunday to see the 470 students of the class of 2015 off on the next leg of their journeys.

Among those students was Lucas Renique, an environmental studies major from Brooklyn, New York. He named one of the highlights of his college experience to be helping to organize an annual event called “Voices” as part of the student group, La Causa. “Voices” is one of the largest free spoken word concerts in New England, he said. La Causa, whose name Renique wore on a sash around his neck, brings poets to campus to, in his words, “increase consciousness around race, class, gender and sexuality through the arts.”

Robert Lucido of Baltimore, Maryland, remembered bringing former speaker of the United States House of Representatives Newt Gingrich to campus as a highlight of his time at Amherst College. “It was the largest event in recent campus history,” he said.

Lucido, who said he helped rekindle the Republican Club, which had been absent from campus for many years, has his sights set on joining the United States Marines for the next phase of his life. First, he said, he has to get laser surgery on his eyes in order to fulfill his ambition of someday flying a Cobra attack helicopter. “Flying Cobras would be pretty cool,” the Spanish major said, comparing the Cobra to other aircrafts. “It’s more intimate and closer to the ground and you work as part of a larger team.”

Lucido said he is one of two members of the graduating class he knows of who are planning on military careers.

Julian Ricardo, a physics and Spanish major from Brooklyn, New York, has a job lined up for this summer with a company that installs solar panels. He is going to graduate school in the fall to study engineering. A highlight of his four years in Amherst was the first time he hiked the Holyoke Range.

The class speaker at the 194th commencement ceremonies was Katherine Ponds, who spoke of her pride in addressing the audience on the centennial anniversary of the first African American to be chosen as the class speaker. That was Charles Hamilton Houston, who went on to a career that included serving as an officer in the segregated Army during World War I before becoming one of the leading civil rights lawyers of his generation.

Amherst College president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin centered much of her speech on Houston after telling the graduating class, “You leave today in glory as you deserve to.” She also noted that her first year at the college was the year they entered as freshmen. “You are my class,” she said.

Martin described Houston’s time at Amherst College as the only African American student on campus when he arrived at the age of 16. “He knew he wouldn’t have much of a social life,” she said. He devoted himself to his three majors: English, French and music.

“When he graduated in 1915 he had no idea what he wanted or intended to do,” Martin said.

Though he died of a heart attack at the age of 54, in his relatively short life Houston earned the nickname, “the man who killed Jim Crow” for being the architect of the legal strategy that eventually led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. Houston “dedicated his life to ending racial segregation,” Martin said. “He exposed the lie of separate but equal.”

Martin said one of the reasons she wanted to lead Amherst College was the commitment it has made to attract the “academically most gifted students regardless of their circumstances.” The result, she said, is that the students crossing the stage were part of “one of the most socio-economically and racially diverse” graduating classes in the country.

Among the parents who came to cheer on their children was Toni Chaparro of Middletown, New York. Her son, Elias Baez graduated with a degree in English. “He is the youngest of four, he’s the baby,” she said.

Chaparro credited her son with researching colleges on his own. “He found a school that worked for us financially based on merit,” she said.

Peggy Hardy of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was on hand to congratulate her granddaughter, Camille Youngblood, who graduated with a degree in Jurisprudence and Social Thought. Among the highlights of her college career was an internship at the White House where she got to meet President Barack Obama.

Youngblood, according to her grandmother, came to Amherst on a field hockey scholarship and “got a full ride.” Next, she is going to work for a Manhattan law firm where she will be for two years before starting law school.

Dr. Chuke Nwachuku, an epidemiologist, was there to cheer on his son, Andrew Nwachuku, who will be doing research on traumatic brain injury at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center this summer while applying to medical school.

This year’s class, according to the Amherst College website, includes students from 27 countries, including Afghanistan, Canada, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, Norway, Romania, Singapore, Turkey and Zambia, as well as 41 U.S. states and territories.

More than 10 percent of the seniors this year are legacy students with a parent, a grandfather or a great-grandfather having gone to Amherst before them. The top five majors this year were economics, English, history, mathematics and psychology. 
 On Saturday, preceding the graduation, a series of talks under the heading “Conversations with Honored Guests” gave graduates, family, friends and members of the local community the opportunity to have an hour-long conversation with all of this year’s honorary degree recipients.

The talks included one by local author Eric Carle on “How to Make The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” referring to his children’s book that became a classic. Another talk was called, “Hair to There and Back Again,” by 1989 alumna Sonya Clark. As an artist, she uses common materials to make statements about race, class and history.

Economist Alice Rivlin, who founded the Congressional Budget Office during the Nixon administration, gave a talk on “Civil Discourse: Is It Possible?” She also served during the Carter and part of the Reagan administration. Computational geneticist Pardis Sabeti lectured on “Cooperation and Collaboration in Response to Outbreaks.”

Another talk was called “Witness to a Legal Revolution,” in which 1976 alumnus Paul Smith spoke about what it was like to successfully argue a landmark gay rights case to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 which struck down a Texas sodomy law.

Rounding out Saturday’s mini-lecture series was a speech by 1982 alumnus Jim Ansara on the topic, “From Post-Earthquake Haiti to Post-Ebola West Africa: Lessons from Paul Farmer and Partners in Health.” Ansara is the founder of several businesses and philanthropic organizations including Build Health International, an organization committed to building free or highly subsidized healthcare facilities for some of the world’s poorest people.

During her remarks on Sunday, Martin told Ansara on the stage that he had shown the students that they “need not choose between success for themselves and working to help others.”

Eric Goldscheider can be reached at


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