Will Van Heuvelen: ‘We must change our town’s name’

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst on Saturday afternoon, March 14, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 7/17/2020 4:11:44 PM

Our town prides itself on progressive values of diversity and inclusion. We’re known for holding true to the notion that our community is only as strong as the weakest among us. But our town’s namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst, was a war criminal, infamous for his attempted genocide of indigenous people.

Amherst was a British general who advocated for the distribution of small-pox tainted blankets and wares to indigenous people during the 1763 Pontiac’s War near modern-day Pittsburgh. His racism and genocidal fervor are well documented in letters he exchanged with his subordinates. His is a legacy of hate, violence and white supremacy.

Yet we continue to honor this white supremacist war criminal. We honor him — a man who likely never actually set foot in this town — and whitewash his legacy with our progressive reputation; but the truth is that his legacy stands in stark contrast to the values we as a community hold dear. We must resolve this inconsistency. We must change our town’s name.

For those among us who may fear changing our name connotes a disregard for history, let me be clear: I am not suggesting we strike all mentions of Lord Jeffery Amherst from our town’s history. But names, like Confederate statues or military bases, connote contemporary values; and anyone arguing otherwise either has an agenda or benefits from the status quo.

We have the opportunity to communicate our community’s contemporary values by disenthralling ourselves from the gravity of the status quo. In changing our name, we have a chance to continue the process of dismantling white supremacy right here in Amherst. But so long as we continue to implicitly honor the legacy of a white supremacist genocidal war criminal, we’re no more enlightened than those among us who enthrall themselves with the Confederacy.

In Amherst, the “H” may be silent, but so long as we honor our white supremacist namesake, the racism is loud.

Will Van Heuvelen


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