On January 6th, 2021, I watched a confederate flag being paraded through the United States Capitol by a mob bent on insurrection. It reminded me of the first time I saw this flag in person; decades ago, before I moved out of Amherst, a few students proudly and routinely displayed the flag in the back windows of their trucks parked at the Amherst Regional High School. The 2nd time was during a walk late December, it was on the back of a truck on South East Street.
I am from Amherst and my family represents at least five to six generations of the inhabitants. My family is Native American, part of the indigenous peoples whose land was stolen to build the town on where the Amherst Town Hall now sits. My family is also African American, brought to this country chained in filthy ships. They built homes on Snell Street and Hazel Avenue. My great grandfather Gil Roberts was born here in 1896, in a house that his father built. As a musician, he traveled to Europe to make a living wage because he was unable to do so in the USA. He worked abroad for seven years before illness brought him back to the town of his birth. He spoke of how he was treated better abroad and felt more included while working in Europe, but still, he loved his home, Amherst.
Like my great-grandfather, Gil, I came back home hopeful that things had changed. I am a business owner, a Milliner, an artisan who incorporates historical hat designs into the present, dressing many celebrities with high-end headwear. Gil Roberts is remembered and included in the historical mural in the West Cemetery, where he was laid to rest in 2004. Dudley Bridges, my grandfather, was a prominent person to many, and is buried in the very unkempt West Cemetery. He lies in what is known as the African American section, which is the final resting place for generations of my family. He started an initiative to restore the Civil War plaques and create a permanent space for them. The plaques are over 125 years old and honor not only my ancestor who fought in the Civil War with the Black 54th Regiment but many families in the town such as the Dickinson family.
This history and my recent disappointment coming home to Amherst are what prompts me to write this letter and share with you all that I have experienced as a means of encouraging this community to reckon with its past and create spaces that pay tribute to the contributions that African Americans and Indigenous people have made to this area.
I, along with others, have requested that the plaques be included in an event to celebrate Juneteenth on Saturday, June 19th, 2021 that we are planning. As a committee, we have met several times with members of town government and administration since June 2020. Promises were made and nothing has happened to move the Civil War monument project forward. In October, we were told that the tablets, which have been in storage for 10 years, would be brought to the Bangs Center for us to view. We were also informed that there were discussions in 2015 to house these tablets in the Jones Library. However, we are not interested in tying this project to the ongoing debate over building projects in Amherst. Our goal is to make sure these tablets are in good condition, and that we can bring these important historical objects into the light of day and celebrate the shared significance with the community.
At this moment where there is so much division, I would have hoped that the Town would have moved quickly to make the tablets available for our group to view and to help us begin planning for a place of honor in the community through grant writing and donations.
I think we can all agree that the plaques deserve a place of prominence within the town and should be made visible and a part of the new state holiday of Juneteenth. Such events take planning and we will need time in which to do so. We will also need to be on the same page as some of us have been quoted in local papers making it clear we are not in agreement. If we are to be quoted in the press, let it be as one, working in partnership to make this happen promptly. I believe we all want this event and the inclusion of the plaques to be impactful, a visually sophisticated celebration honoring the Amherst residents that gave their lives during the Civil War to rid this nation of the stain of slavery.
Our Civil War plaque committee is made up of people that love Amherst, have an interest in its history, and have professional expertise. For instance Dr. Carlie Tartakov, one of the first African American teachers in Amherst. She was my 1st-grade teacher at Wildwood Elementary School, and the first educator to let me know that the borders of this town, any town, city, state, or country, were not mine. A distinguished senior of this community who, in my opinion, deserves no less than clear, candid, and prompt communication; Carlie and her husband, retired Art History Professor, Dr. Gary Tartakov, have given years to Amherst to make it better for everyone. In addition, Drs. Amilcar and Demetria Shabazz are historical preservationists that have helped in the creation of two nationally-recognized historical museums. In the civic spirit that they exemplify, I hope that we can work together on this Juneteenth event and rejuvenate this community by coming together in securing a permanent display for the Civil War plaques. I understand there have been challenges but to have spent months waiting for a response from the town is extraordinary.
I believe those of us who deal with the public should understand that the success of elected officials is ultimately in their ability to put action into their promises and see the contributions of others as valuable and worthwhile. However, I have not seen this level of responsibility nor appreciation of community expertise and value reciprocated in Amherst. For example, when COVID and the need for homemade masks were still fresh, my mother and I started making masks for family, friends, Navajo Nation in AZ, and the harm reduction centers
in NYC. When COVID touched down in Massachusetts, we moved on to the Amherst Senior and Survival Centers, and their gratitude was genuine and motivating. In contrast, when I was asked to partner with the Town to create a “Masks4all” community initiative, I was told my name would need to be removed from the artwork which I provided because this would be seen as the Town promoting my business. While I understand this was a matter of policy, and despite the very best intentions from the town organizers, the labor, the donated materials, and the graphics came from the community. Businesses in this community, mainly white-owned, receive lots of recognition but in this instance, the town decides to enforce their policy?
Finally, I want to restate the projects at hand that require not only our hearts but our collective action to create a place where those who are new to this community and those returning like me, can feel at home and that we matter. In his letters, Dudley urged the town to honor the collective action of the Civil War Veterans by creating a place of honor for the plaques to commemorate the members of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and those in Amherst they fought alongside. In his final years, he worked with local business owners in Amherst to raise money in support of the restoration of the over 100-year-old plaques and set up a fund where money could be directed for constructing a site and its continual upkeep. As we prepare for the celebration of Juneteenth 2021, I ask that you honor his work by supporting these efforts to recognize the history and contributions of African Americans in this town.
Restore the dignity to the West Cemetery, bring forth the Civil War plaques to be seen and historically contextualized for the Juneteenth celebration planned this summer, and finally, create an independent space to preserve these precious historical objects.
Anika Lopes is a resident of Amherst and the proprietor of Anika Lopes Millinery