Smith social work students want college’s first president ousted

  • In this composite image, a portrait of Smith College’s first president, L. Clarke Seelye, hangs on the second floor of the school’s Seelye Hall. Students covered the portrait with a banner on Tuesday, calling for its removal and making broader demands for racial justice. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

  • A portrait of Smith College's first president, L. Clarke Seelye, hangs on the second floor of the school's Seelye Hall. Students covered the portrait with a banner on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, calling for its removal and making broader demands for racial justice. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

  • A portrait of Smith College's first president, L. Clarke Seelye, hangs on the second floor of the school's Seelye Hall. Students covered the portrait with a banner on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, calling for its removal and making broader demands for racial justice. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

  • Protesters stand in front of a portrait of Smith College's first president, L. Clarke Seelye, on the second floor of the school's Seelye Hall. The School for Social Work students covered the portrait with a banner on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022, calling for its removal and making broader demands for racial justice. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/17/2022 9:22:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — For students taking humanities classes at Smith College, the college’s first president — L. Clarke Seelye — looms large; his portrait stares down from a second-floor wall in Seelye Hall, the main humanities classroom building on campus.

For some students, that’s a problem.

On Tuesday, a group of Smith College School for Social Work students draped banners over Seelye’s name on the front of the building and over the large portrait of him. “Down with Seelye,” they read. “SSW Reparations Now.”

The organizers of the morning protest say they want to draw attention, first and foremost, to anti-racist demands that students of color in the School for Social Work have been making for years. They chose to do so by also demanding the removal of Seelye from campus — a man who, they note, celebrated the destruction of Indigenous villages in the region.

In a chapter of the book “In A Place Called Paradise: Culture and Community in Northampton, Massachusetts,” the anthropologist Margaret Bruchac points to Seelye as perpetuating biased representations of local Native peoples in a 1904 speech during Northampton’s Quarter Millennial Commemoration.

“How different the scenes which greet us from those which greeted her [Northampton’s] infancy,” Seelye said. “Above are the same heavens; the same majestic river flows through the meadows; our horizon is bounded by the same picturesque mountain ranges; but how changed the inhabitants and their environment! No longer unbroken by forests stretch as far as the eye can reach, concealing in their unexplored recesses wild beasts and savages; no longer men fear lest a sudden Indian raid may massacre the few inhabitants ... In place of a rude and contracted society, we behold a prosperous and highly civilized community.”

Eviva Kahne, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s direct action, pointed to that passage of Seelye “celebrating the genocide of Indigenous people” and said that a school that says it is dedicated to anti-racist values should not be “glorifying a white supremacist and settler colonialist.”

In a statement, Smith College spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel said that the college was aware of the protest. She said that the college has launched an initiative, “Toward Racial Justice At Smith,” that includes principles for reviewing symbols at the college — including building names — and considering whether to change them.

“We are aware of concerns around use of the Seelye name and will continue discussion of those issues in the weeks and months ahead,” Schmeidel said.

On Tuesday, Kahne said that the group had received around 70 signatures on a petition to remove Seelye from campus. The School of Social Work cohort this summer is around 100 people, she added.

Even more important, though, are demands that Indigenous students and students of color made back in 2015, Kahne said. Those include commitments for greater inclusion of authors of color in school readings, more representation of students of color on school committees and more.

“We wanted to uplift these demands that have been overlooked and ignored for so long,” Kahne said.

Smith’s School for Social Work 27-month master’s degree program brings students from across the country to campus for three intensive summer sessions, punctuated by field internships during the regular academic year.

The School for Social Work’s students have protested over the years for greater commitments to anti-racism, including a 2016 rally against what students said was the institution’s failure to resolve ongoing complaints of racial bias. More recently, Smith College has been the scene of protests over racism and policing on campus.

“I expect better from this school,” said fellow organizer Kai Dorothy Mondloch, 31. “An anti-racist commitment requires action. An anti-racist commitment requires structural change. And Seelye’s name on the building we have class in is a blatant demonstration of the lack of sincerity to that commitment.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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