Amherst hosts reparations trailblazer


Staff Writer

Published: 03-30-2023 6:16 PM

AMHERST — A photograph from around 1900 of Amherst resident Leilah Bridges depicts her in her Sunday best, sporting a cravat and fancy hat that shows her love for millinery.

It’s a striking image of a woman that Robin Rue Simmons, the architect of the nation’s first city-funded reparations program in Evanston, Illinois, says captures a community’s entrepreneurial spirit and a woman’s strength and pride in her heritage.

The image is part of the Ancestral Bridges exhibit that serves to inform people of the often hidden history of Amherst’s Black residents, and the challenges they faced.

“People need to be given the opportunity to stand in the spaces where people were treated as less than others,” Simmons said.

For Simmons, who was provided a guided tour of the pictures displayed at Frost Library on the Amherst College campus Thursday, such projects are critical to building support for reparations initiatives like that being undertaken in Amherst, where the Town Council has committee $2 million in revenue from recreational marijuana sales for its program.

“The practice of reparations has to be led by the harmed community,” Simmons said. “But what I have found is that there is strength in partnerships, collaborations and allies being in partnership.”

“This can’t be led just by the Black community, or the ally community,” Simmons said.

Her daylong visit to Amherst was to conclude with a screening of the documentary “The Big Payback,” focused on the work that occurred in Evanston, and then a roundtable discussion of what is happening in Amherst, including with student leaders at the college and others in the community.

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Ancestral Bridges, put together by Anika Lopes, who represents District 4 on Town Council, is based on her ancestors, including generations of Black and Afro-Indigenous residents of Amherst, including some who worked at the college, serving meals on dishes showing Lord Jeffery Amherst shooting at Native Americans. There is an 1860 photo of Charles Thompson, known as the “Professor of Dust and Ashes,” who was in charge of janitors and whose portrait was in the college’s Olio yearbook for 40 years.

Earlier in the day, Simmons got to see the town’s famed Civil War tablets displayed at the Bangs Community Center, which include the names of African American residents who were members of the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and 5th Cavalry.

Both exhibits are forms of reparative justice, critical in informing the community in support of reparations and allowing elected representatives to go beyond ceremonial proclamations and resolutions. “Without this, we don’t have the foundation of our work,” Simmons said.

“Thank you for your work. You are bringing hope to community members and future generations,” she added.

Lopes and her mother, Debora Bridges, were instrumental in pushing for the tablets to be brought out of storage and put on display at the Bangs Community Center, where guided tours are regularly led by Bridges. Some of the people whose names are on the tables were among the troops arriving in Galveston, Texas in 1865, informing people that the Civil War had ended and with it, slavery.

The tablets display has enhanced the Juneteenth celebrations in town, as Lopes told Simmons.

Lopes said she is happy the college is showing “a real sense of atonement” in hosting the exhibit, but she eventually will seek permanent physical space for it.

“This is as much Amherst history as Emily Dickinson or anything else,” Lopes said. The expansion and renovation of the Jones Library is expected to have room for the permanent display of the tablets.

Simmons’ work as an alderwoman led to the creation of the Housing Restorative Program, which offers mortgage payment assistance and cash payments to qualifying residents. There, she could gather information from a museum where the history and experience of Black residents, collected over 22 years, gives insights into their lives.

Leaving elected office in Evanston, Simmons is now the the founder of FirstRepair, and a fellow at the University of Chicago, visiting more than 40 cities to explain reparations. It is important to note, she said, that wealth has been stripped away from the Black community, both in large ways, such as the massacre of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, and in smaller ways, such as Black families losing their homes. It’s a reason she sees reclaiming land and housing equity as a way to compensation.

Amherst College, she observed, like other institutions of higher education, has both the financial resources and intellectual capacity to partner on reparations work.

But she added that innovative ways are needed to support each other and continue small steps that will build the case, remove controversy and normalize reparative justice.

“This can show how it’s bringing us together through healing and reconciliation,” Simmons said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at]]>