The Long Life of Names by Sam Wohlforth ’17

In protesting the racist Lord Jeff mascot, student activists often cite his record of approving of genocidal tactics against the Native tribes his British army was trying to suppress.  They rightly quote his letter to a subordinate in which he wonders “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?”  In other letters, it becomes quite clear that Lord Jeff saw the Native American tribes whose rebellion he was violently suppressing as contemptible, as barely human: in one, he writes, “for their commencing hostilities against us and persisting therein might be attended with the [illegible] of our inferior posts and a few of our people but must inevitably occasion such measures to be taken as would bring about the total extirpation of those Indian nations.”  Blaming the Native tribes for resisting British expansion into the hinterlands of the Northeast demonstrates Lord Amherst’s gallingly short memory and legitimized the colonialist violence the British would soon dispense on the heads of the Native tribes of the Northeast.

But the Lord Jeff is not our only symbol that dates from the days of Old Amherst, the old-boys network of white Amherst men who attended and ran the College for its first century and a half.  

The names of our buildings are a testament to its centuries-long existence: Drew House is the only residence hall named after a person of color, and none are named after women.  Consider Calvin Coolidge, the only Amherst graduate to serve as President of the United States, and the namesake of the Coolidge Cage and the now-demolished Coolidge Hall (may it rest in peace).  Early in his time at Amherst, he was the quiet and reserved man he would become famous for as President, but eventually he came into his own and joined a fraternity.  He blossomed so much that he found it within himself to shoot a college gardener in the rear end with a BB gun.  (Can you imagine the outrage that would ensue if someone shot a facilities worker with a BB gun today?)  

Granted, Coolidge was one of the most progressive President in American history with regards to the rights of Black Americans, publicly advocating for anti-lynching legislation and for the federal government to give grants to Howard University (a historically black college) for students studying medicine.  But it is illuminating that shooting a college employee with an air pistol gets cited by College President Tom Gerety in his 1995 Commencement Speech as an example of Coolidge growing into his own and becoming accepted by his peers.  What would it mean for assault on a facilities worker to represent a social success? Only in a college that existed for, and was composed of, the most privileged.

Coolidge’s own post-Amherst career strongly contrasts with the career of Charles Millard Pratt, who was the company secretary of Standard Oil from 1908 to 1911 and was part of its Board of Trustees for a number of years prior.  During his time on the Board, Pratt helped control the largest corporation in the history of the world up to that point, a company that at one point held a 90% monopoly on all oil and gas products in the entire country.  Standard Oil paid its workers well, but was notorious for opposing unions and strikes.  In 1914, Standard Oil would perpetrate the worst labor massacre in American history at a mine they operated in Ludlow, Colorado, in which between 19 and 26 people were killed, two of whom were women and eleven of whom were children, all of them killed by a fire set by mine guards in their camp.  While Pratt was not responsible for the massacre himself, during his time at Standard Oil the company became one of the worst abusers of workers in American history and the most powerful monopolies in the history of the world.  

Or consider Charles Merrill, who spent two years at Amherst before founding investment giant Merrill Lynch and who referred to his multiple affairs as opportunities to “recharge his batteries.”  Merrill is a classic example of the Old Amherst Man, who created staggering wealth for himself and his family and demonstrated with his actions and his speech that he felt entitled to women’s bodies for his own personal well-being.  Each of his ex-wives alleged he treated them cruelly in their divorce proceedings.  After his son James had an affair with a male professor during his time at Amherst, Charles Merrill briefly considered having the professor killed.  Merrill’s faith in the power of the market led him to be one of the first investors to advertise Wall Street to the masses, opening the financial markets to the middle classes.  However, his firm was one of the first to invest in national supermarkets and big-box department stores, leaving the country’s small groceries and dry-goods stores crushed in his wake.  Joe Nocera, author and New York Times columnist, writes that “self-made kings like Charlie Merrill…have an almost unselfconscious assumption that the world revolves around them—and because of their wealth and power and overwhelming personality, it usually does.”  Is it any surprise that Amherst’s largest academic building bears his name?

It is only in the last few decades that Amherst opened its doors to women, and it was only during the presidency of Tony Marx that Amherst began to take seriously its obligations to low-income students and students of color.  As the protests last year showed, Old Amherst has yet to die, and these obligations remain insufficiently met.  When student activists successfully campaigned for the removal of Lord Jeff as our mascot, they achieved a big victory, albeit a symbolic one, in favor of the Amherst of the future.  As more and more of our alumni base becomes composed of women and people of color, more and more of these symbols of the old order will fall.  Their persistence is a testament to the scale of task ahead.  

swohlforth17@amherst.edu

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