Second Symposium on Reparations: Research Results And An Interview With The Founders


Juneteenth rally to demand reparations from the US government. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The second symposium on reparations was held on April 27 via  Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here (beginning at the 8:47 mark). The first symposium on reparations with Alderman Robin Ru Simmons from Evanston, Illinois was held on December 1, 2020 

This symposium was moderated by Mattea Kramer, who began by asking Reparations for Amherst (R4A) founders Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews how R4A came into existence. Miller and Andrews began the group shortly after the murder of George Floyd last May. Miller said that, as the dominant group in the U.S., White people must take full ownership of the racism that exists here. We must not just help to combat racism — it is our responsibility to do so.

Andrews said he is not doing this work to make himself “feel better,”  and that opening himself up to the experiences of Black people often makes him feel worse. The inclination is to want to move fast to change things, but we need to allow time to feel and heal. Miller said then we can make decisions that are compassionate. She pointed out that same sex marriage was accepted when it was looked at not only as a policy, but with love.

Andrews said there is no replicable model for reparations. As White people living in a White enclave such as Amherst, it is easy to ignore the lived experiences of Black people in our town, in the region, and in the country, and not acknowledge the advantages and sense of security we have because we are White.

The History of Black People in Amherst
Kramer, who has served as the primary researcher for R4A, pored over historical data from the Jones Library Special Collections and two publications, Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts by former Amherst College Physics Professor Robert Romer (2009) and The History of the Black Population of Amherst, 1728-1870 by James Avery Smith (1999). 

Kramer learned that many of the early White residents of Amherst were slaveholders. This was true for most of the towns in the area. Deerfield has particularly good records. Still, Jones Librarian Cindy Harbison found an early handwritten tax record that included a column of property for “Negroes.” Interestingly, this column was omitted when the record was transcribed for the document The History of the Town of Amherst in 1896. Kramer said she attended the Bement School, Deerfield Academy, and Amherst College, and although  learning about the history of Old Deerfield was mandatory, she never learned about the slavery that existed there and in the region as a whole.

After slavery was abolished, Black Amherst residents mostly served as laborers and domestics. Many lived in a tenement building called the Bee Hive on North Pleasant Street at the site of the current Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst. When, in 1864, it was rumored that one resident of the Bee Hive had contracted small pox, the building was set on fire and residents had to quarantine elsewhere. Even in the 20th , headlines from the Amherst Bulletin pointed to racism in the town. Although legal discrimination was abolished, discrimination still exists. Kramer’s research is presented here.

Racism in Modern Day Amherst
Diaina Griffith Ozuna uncovered restricted deeds  (1946 – 47) for seven properties in the Blue Hills area that prohibited selling the property to Black people. A deed (1926) for a property on Ward Street also banned selling to people from Poland or Italy. The Westside historic district near downtown was developed in order to keep Blacks out.

In the early 2000s, Amherst made national news with a lawsuit filed by Orchard Valley residents protesting construction of Butternut Farm, a 26-unit affordable housing project  planned by Way Finders. Although the project was eventually built, the lawsuit delayed construction by 10 years and increased its cost.

Kramer noted that affordable housing is often linked to racism. With an absence of unrestricted affordable housing, Black people are often unable to save enough money to purchase a home, and thus are prevented from accumulating the intergenerational wealth that so many White people benefit from.

Racial Disparities in Wealth and Health

Jeff Fishman cited the 2019 study by the Amherst League of Women Voters, “LWVA Report On Racial Equity Indicators” , and said that in 2019, the average White family in Amherst earned $108,000 per year, while the average Black family earned $45,000. One in three White residents live below the poverty line, while one in two Black residents do.

At UMass Amherst in 2019, of the 6,274 employees, 320 (5.1 percent) were Black;  only 4.4 percent of  its faculty were Black. Of the UMass Amherst employees who were indefinitely furloughed due to the pandemic, 17 percent were Black; only 9 percent of White employees were.

Anita Sarro noted the lack of access to healthcare and healthy food for Amherst residents who lack private  transportation. Supermarkets and medical centers are on the outskirts or town. The Survival Center is only accessible by public transportation for many residents, but  the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, which is mostly funded by federal, state, and local monies, limits the number of bags one can carry onto a bus to three. Cooley Dickinson hospital could not provide data on the racial make-up of its patients or staff, but plans to include that information in its 2022 statistics.

The Musante Health Center in the Bangs Center is federally mandated to serve poor clients and  is administered by the Hilltown Health Center. but It is not clear how much of Hilltown’s budget is allocated to Amherst. There is currently no coordination between the health center and the town’s Board of health or senior center, both of which operate out of the same building. Aside from Atkinson Family Practice, which has a fairly diverse staff, most medical providers in the area are White. Statistics show marked improvement in health outcomes, such as infant mortality, if the provider is of the same race as the patient.

Fishman pointed out that racism has been named a public health crisis by the American Medical Association. The New England Journal of Medicine showed a link between racism and accelerated aging. Chronically elevated stress levels from ongoing discrimination can cause high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, asthma, diabetes, and kidney disease. And in Massachusetts, Blacks are three times more likely to die of COVID.

The cumulative effects of facing daily discrimination sends the message that “your needs are not important” and has a negative impact on mental health, leading to increased PTSD, substance abuse, and depression.

Racism in Transportation and Education
Mary Porcino noted that since the mid-20th  century, federal transportation funds have shifted from public transportation to roads and highways. These roads mostly serve the White population. Recently, President Joe Biden admitted to the lack of investment in transportation infrastructure in communities of color.

This is also true in Amherst. Many bus stops here have no shelters, buses often run late, and it takes twice as long to travel by bus as by car. Conditions are even worse when the colleges are not in session and service shrinks to only 25 percent capacity here. Porcino told of a young member of Hope Church who was celebrated for graduating from the high school and planned to attend Holyoke Community College (HCC), but was unable to enroll because she had no way to commute to HCC.

In 1990, the NAACP filed a complaint against Amherst schools alleging differential discipline, academic “tracking” that excluded children of color from more challenging classes, lack of faculty of color, and racist incidents. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the 31 years since. Blacks make up eight percent of the student population of the high school, but they are 19 percent of the suspensions. Faculty of color feel marginalized and are sometimes subject to overt racist acts. After each such incident, one or more working groups are formed, and they are exhausting because they require people of color to relive the hurtful events. A 2011 report from a consultant cited the biases in teacher expectations and a staff composition not representative of the student body. But these reports are not readily available. Porcino had to go so far as tofile a public records request to obtain them. And with each new administration, the pattern repeats itself. 

Report from Evanston
Dino Robinson, founder of Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, joined the symposium. He noted the importance of building an archive of local Black experience. Shorefront has assembled data around 12 subject areas. In housing, they looked at differential mortgage rates and appraisals, so that they could challenge the banks on their lending practices. The report is available on the Evanston website. It documents how Black lives were devalued over time and how value was removed from the Black community.

The Future of Reparations in Amherst
Andrews said that the vision of R4A is not just affordable housing for Black people, but a shared access to wealth and experiences— restorative justice. Miller said we are going to make mistakes, but we need to own them and move on.

This symposium did not deal with interaction between the police and the Black community, because the Community Safety Working Group of the town has been working on that topic for several months. 

There is a group of Black stakeholders, an informal body of 20 to 30 members, who are surveying Black residents of Amherst to come up with a proposal of what repair should look like. They will document the harm done to their community, so they don’t have to keep reliving it. The group is compiling a report to be presented to the Town Council at the May 17 meeting, and will be available on the Town and R4A websites.

Miller encouraged concerned residents to write to the Town Council urging them to put action behind the Resolution against Structural Racism that they passed in December. Those who want to be added to the R4A mailing list can send an email to

A book group, Mindful of Race, was scheduled to begin April 29. There is still space, so those interested should email Miller or Andrews at the above email address.

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