Looking at Yesterday, Today

yesterday-today-spreadWhat a superb issue, focused on the mural at the Log (“Looking at Yesterday, Today,” summer 2016). Speaking truth to the power of embedded tradition is always tough, and that is what the honest historian is constantly up against. The thought of our Eph as “having a slave or two” was a new insight to deal with. By the way, Chief Hendrick was very tall. His femur was preserved by his tribe, and sculptor Jud Hartmann, who specializes in heroic statues of Native American warriors, told me that doctors looking at the length of his femur estimate that Hendrick was 6 feet 4 inches tall. By all means keep up your investigative journalism into the past.
—Don Gregg ’51, Armonk, N.Y

Your article on the painting in the Log, and the thoughtful way the college has dealt with the issues surrounding it, was very welcome. The discussion was insightful. It tells a lot about what’s on the minds of Americans today. I think the college handled the situation just right. However, none of the commentators about the painting talked about what was in fact its focus—two regional military commanders planning for an upcoming battle in the Seven Years’ War. Western Massachusetts was on the front line of what was probably the world’s first World War, which involved nearly all major European powers, totally rebalanced power over the entire globe, reduced dramatically the power of Native Americans forever, and set the stage for British imperialism worldwide, for the coming American breakaway, and maybe even for Prussian German ascendency in central Europe.
—Matt Nimetz ’60, New York, N.Y.

 

What is it? That was the deceptively simple question guiding the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History as it carried out its charge from President Adam Falk last spring to consider the fate of a newly controversial mural in the Black Room of the Log.

Painted during World War II to adorn what was, at the time, a gathering space for alumni unaffiliated with any fraternity house, the mural depicts Col. Ephraim Williams and Mohawk leader Theyanoguin on Sept. 8, 1755, the day they and their troops were ambushed and killed in “The Bloody Morning Scout.” The battle, which took place near Lake George at the very start of the Seven Years War, set in motion the founding of the college that today bears Williams’ name.

Over time, the mural faded into the background. Even alumni who frequented the Log as students during its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s struggle to remember it today. So it’s no surprise that many Ephs removed from campus by time and distance were puzzled when the mural grabbed the spotlight after the renovated Log reopened in the fall.

Many on campus raised concerns about the painting’s portrayal of Native Americans, which in turn led to questions about whether the Log and other spaces on campus felt inclusive to our increasingly diverse community. Similar questions about historical representations were being raised at colleges and universities around the world. On many campuses, including Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and Yale, protracted protests were making headlines on a daily basis.

In this context, Falk decided to cover the Log mural temporarily to give the Williams committee the time and space to complete its spring-semester assignment. Led by professor of history and department chair Karen Merrill, students, faculty and staff conducted an in-depth consideration of the mural and its place on campus. In so doing they created a model for informed, engaged and respectful discourse that they’ll use when they continue their work in the fall, taking on other questions of historical representation on campus.

In late spring, the committee recommended that the mural remain in place and be contextualized with information about both the scene depicted as well as the work undertaken to understand it. Falk accepted the recommendations, and the additional context is expected to be in place by the end of the summer. A few weeks before the committee’s report was released, Williams Magazine convened a group of faculty to discuss historical representation broadly. Leading the conversation was noted presidential historian Michael Beschloss ’77, who has written nine books on American presidents, including the New York Times best-sellers Presidential Courage (2007) and The Conquerors (2002). Beschloss, whose two sons are members of the Classes of ’16 and ’19, was joined by Leslie Brown, associate professor of history, who has published extensively on African-American history, gender and race relations, and oral and documentary history; Charles Dew ’58, the Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, whose interest in Southern history, the Civil War and Reconstruction was awakened at Williams; and Annie Valk, associate director for public humanities and lecturer in history, who is a specialist in oral history, public history and the social history of the 20th century United States. An excerpt of their conversation follows.


Michael Beschloss ’77: I’ve read the coverage of the Log mural, and I’ve watched how the broader issue of historical representation has been playing out around the country. But it would be helpful to know more about how the issue has evolved at Williams over the years. Can we talk about earlier moments in the history of the college that have elicited similar discussion about historical symbols and names here on campus?

Charles Dew ’58: I don’t recall, either as a student or a faculty member, historical representation being at the center of the campus conversation the way it is now. What we’re witnessing is a heightened sensitivity on the part of our students, faculty and staff to historical memory. That’s enormously healthy, because historical memory determines a lot of action and policy. The students have been very constructive and positive in their approach to these things. I don’t feel that we’re being overwhelmed by either political correctness or nonchalance. We are behaving the way an educational institution should. We’re using this as an educational moment. And if educational institutions can’t do this the right way, who can?

Annie Valk: I was at a conference at Emory University, maybe five years ago, that brought together people from 20 different universities and colleges that have initiatives under way to think about, research or deal with historical representation and the legacy of slavery on their campuses. It’s a national movement that’s being expressed in lots of different ways at different places.

Dew: There’s a growing awareness of “ebony and ivy,” which grew out of the work of former Williams history professor Craig Steven Wilder. He wrote about how educational institutions have profited from slavery and racism. [Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities was published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press.]

Leslie Brown: A history of slavery needs to be done at Williams, too. We know Ephraim Williams had a slave or two.

Beschloss: How much more do we know about this dimension of Eph Williams?

Dew: Not much. He was a prominent New Englander of his place and time, which meant he had a handful of slaves. The study of the history of the institution that comes from this sort of awareness can be incredibly valuable. What happened with Ephraim Williams’ slaves when he died? Were they sold as part of his estate, and did those resources go into the founding of the college?

Brown: Or did his slaves create the wealth Eph already had?

Beschloss: In the past, people haven’t always paid close attention to information about where the money comes from.

Brown: In a book called Complicity, written by two journalists from the Hartford Courant, there is a reference to the New England Manufacturer’s Association in the early 19th century giving money to Williams. They made their money on cotton coming out of the South. And with their profits from textile manufacturing, they gave a lot of money to New England colleges. That would be a good thing to follow up on. Who else donated money to Williams in the early 19th century, and where did that money come from?

Beschloss: So should you do a full vetting of every name on every building, every endowed chair, and then have that conversation?

Dew: Yes. Let’s get at it and do it right. Amos Lawrence—of Lawrence Hall, our art museum—was one of the Boston Associates. They were mill owners, the “lords of the loom,” the Cotton Whigs in Massachusetts, who were intimately involved in the cotton trade. Northern insurance companies and banks facilitated the financing of the slave trade. The money was flowing south and north, and the amount of money that fueled the slave trade is staggering.

Beschloss: It would be interesting—and it might help us to have an impact on the larger national discussion—to think about what gets considered in such vetting. Is it just the name of a big slave owner on one of our buildings? Or that of a Northern mill owner who didn’t own slaves but treated his workers horribly? What about companies that dealt with Hitler in the 1930s? In the past, for colleges and universities, the premise has so often been that these questions are so horrible, and possible culpability so immense, that the subject had better not be raised, because it might be too destructive.

Valk: It’s important to ask these questions and more. Asking them is not a way of tearing down the institution but rather opening it up.

Dew: There’s an educational component that’s very valuable, which is to illustrate to students the changing definition of social justice. There’s enough investment in this place by the people who are a part of it that this could be done constructively and honestly, and it would benefit a lot of stakeholders in Williams.

Brown: One thing that should come to us in these conversations about historical representation is that these were not up/ down decisions that were made, or yes/no, positive/negative. So, yes, there’s the money from the slave trade. Meanwhile, Williams had the first abolition society on any campus.

Dew: An alumnus recently acquired and gave to the Chapin Library a pamphlet that came out of a Williams abolition society from the mid-1820s. That’s well before William Lloyd Garrison started The Liberator [a weekly newspaper denouncing slavery]. It’s important to be aware of the religious and moral heritage of the school and to understand how evangelical this place was in the 19th century.

Brown: Southern students might have brought their slaves with them to campus. But this area was also an Underground Railroad site. The fact that the abolitionist society was having public debates means there was an exchange of ideas, a discourse. Students in that era dealt with these issues among themselves and developed their own politics. When you move into the Civil War era, you note the number of students who left the college to go to war and who did Freedmen’s Bureau work after that. The founder of the Hampton Institute was a Williams graduate.

Dew: Samuel Chapman Armstrong [Class of 1862], the product of a Hawaiian missionary family. He came to Williams with his Christian beliefs as part of his world view. He joined the Union Army and after the war founded Hampton Institute, which included not only freedmen but also Native Americans as a portion of the country’s population that had been dispossessed and treated unfairly. Did his Williams experience have anything to do with that? Did his Hawaiian experience have anything to do with that? There are ways in which these things link up that are positive as well as negative.

Brown: My civil rights class did a history of civil rights at Williams since the 1940s. It was fabulous for the students to find there was activism around so many issues. People were going to Mississippi and coming back and talking about it. Martin Luther King Jr. was here at a time that would have been very controversial.

Valk: A few courses are using the college archives to better understand institutional history. Dorothy Wang in American studies taught one this year. David Edwards in anthropology and Christopher Marcisz, a local journalist, did a class on town-gown relations. But more classes need to look into the history of Williams and how it relates to the broader history.

AP_117536100230

Princeton students held a November 2015 sit-in to demand the school remove the name of former university president and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from programs and buildings over what they say was his racist legacy (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

AP_366470162020

In March 2016 students in Oxford, England, called for the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes that was mounted on an Oriel College building. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP Images)

Dew: If you look in the nave of Thompson Memorial Chapel, you’ll see the names of Union veterans who died to destroy slavery. There’s a moment when we could bring a class in and say, “Here is something that was remembered on the Williams campus when Thompson Chapel went up in 1904, the same era that Jim Crow was being written into law in the South, that Confederate monuments were going up across the South.” Whit Stoddard ’35, when he was an art professor here, used to teach a wonderful lecture for the incoming class called “A Sense of Where You Are.” [The extremely popular talk offered a wry look at the architecture of the college.] Something like that, during First Days, would be so helpful for incoming students. A sense not only in terms of whose name is on what building and why, but the things we’ve been talking about today.

Beschloss: Let’s talk about Williams’ relationship with the indigenous population. For thousands of years, the land that the college is sitting on belonged to Native Americans. Williams’ and white Europeans’ history here is just a tiny sliver of the whole.

Valk: This is an area where there’s almost total invisibility. The mural in the Log is one of the few places in which there is any depiction of Native Americans on campus. What does it mean when the only—or almost the only—representation is this representation?

Beschloss: From the standpoint of 2016, many people will find this mural a cartoon, but not such a benign cartoon. Quite frankly, for all the time I spent in the Log as a student in the mid-1970s, with a large crowd of fellow students present and loud noise, I am not sure many people even noticed that there was a mural.

Valk: I’ve thought a lot about the invisibility of the mural. It was up there for 60 years, and nobody noticed. Now it’s getting attention because the Log has reopened as a certain kind of space—a gathering space for students—and because now there are four or five indigenous students on campus.

Dew: I sat in on committee meetings about the mural in the spring. I was enormously impressed with the caliber of the discussion students carried out. It was informed and deeply felt. There was passion in the air.

Brown: At the community-wide forum in April, the students on the committee talked about things that didn’t even occur to me. I thought the image depicted in the mural was insulting. But then one student said, “It’s fall. Native American soldiers wouldn’t have been out there in just a loin cloth.” They talked about the relationship depicted, of two captains of war planning together, that we don’t know if that would have been true. Knowing the history of how those images in the Log, all of them, came into being is really important. Then putting them into historical context to say, well, in the 1940s, when this mural was painted, people thought this was how Native Americans were. Or maybe the alumni who commissioned it thought it was college humor—1940s college humor.

Valk: Or they thought it was honorific.

Beschloss: The fact that it’s one of the few prominent references to Native Americans on the campus just turns up the volume.

Dew: We should use this moment for both consciousness raising and conscience raising. We are going to be entering what I hope will be a historical review of the questions we’re talking about today. Historical representation is critical. There has to be extensive contextualization done with accuracy and sensitivity. There’s an opportunity for us to educate ourselves and do some balancing of historical memory in ways that would be constructive. We need to know the institutional history, and we need, in the case of the murals and the Log, for them to be interpreted.

Valk: It’s more than just writing a label. Art offers really interesting ways to respond. Think about the possibility of inviting a contemporary Native artist to do a piece that’s a response to the mural.

Beschloss: Or have a Native artist approach almost exactly the same subject and moment from his or her own point of view. This would represent the present speaking to the past.

Valk: There should be opportunities for people to engage with each other by engaging with the object. There need to be public programs, classes, research projects. The Mohawk Trail runs right through the center of campus. There’s an interpretive possibility to call attention to the fact that the college is on Native land. It goes beyond the mural and the Log to finding other ways to address invisibility. Symbolism and symbolic responses matter. But tangible responses also matter tremendously. How can this be a place that really embraces talking about, exploring and examining local history, Native history, institutional history? I don’t think it’s possible to have one definitive response.

Beschloss: Do you mean in general or on the specific issue of the mural?

Valk: Both. In the case of the mural, as the students showed us in their presentations at the community forum, there are lots of different ways to understand it. There’s military history, institutional history, the history of how the Log was built, the history of the painter. There’s indigenous history. The danger, once we’ve figured all this out, is suggesting that now we know the truth. Brown: Change is the only thing we can count on. It’s interesting to me what’s happening at other places. I understand wanting to take down Calhoun’s name. [ John C. Calhoun was a 19th-century politician and white supremacist for whom a residential college at Yale University is named.] But then we’d have to take down a whole bunch of other people’s names. We’d have to rename Brown. We’d have to rename Williams.

Beschloss: And Mount Washington. Brown: Washington, D.C., and Lincoln, Neb.

Beschloss: I live in D.C., and I keep having to drive down Jefferson Davis Highway. Brown: How many [Thomas] Jefferson Boulevards around the country would have to be changed? It’s awful to have to walk by these names, but students need to learn to do that and say, “You didn’t want me here, and I’m here. All you are is a sign on a building.” We need to teach the history around those names and encourage students to understand that attitude in that time was defeated by the Civil War. There are still racists, there’s still structural racism, and maybe Calhoun is part of that problem. But there’s so much more to say and to teach around the building than just sandblasting the name.

Beschloss: So you’re saying that you might be more likely to have that discussion if you keep Jefferson Davis’ name on a highway?

Brown: Yes, exactly. That’s the kind of honesty I’d like to see out of the Ivies and the elite schools in particular, because they can lead on that. There’s a way for institutions to move past this and not simply say yes or no, black or white, name up or name down.

Dew: A perfect example is the Haystack Monument [commemorating the start of the Protestant mission movement in 1806 by five Williams students]. Today the missionary impulse has a decidedly imperialistic cast to it. We see it as more of a mixed bag than we did in earlier decades. But in the summer, busloads of people from all over the world arrive on campus and park all around the monument. They make a pilgrimage to see it because it’s so much a part of their lives.

Valk: Work needs to be done to help students, and everyone, understand the historical enterprise. It isn’t just uncovering facts that are true with a capital T. It’s a process of new understandings and new interpretations.

Brown: Williams has been involved in major political moments that have been part of important discussions on campus. Students today shouldn’t feel like they can’t have those discussions. It’s the tradition of the college to have them. That’s how students learn. Perceptions change. Teaching changes. Pedagogy changes. We’re constantly seeking new knowledge, and new knowledge changes what we can present. We’re not teaching now what we would have in the 1940s. That’s important for students, alumni and faculty themselves to understand. When knowledge changes, our conclusions have to change. Staying with tradition—“This is the way it was, and we should leave it”—doesn’t make sense. It wouldn’t be the Williams way, and it certainly wouldn’t be an engaging intellectual enterprise either.


 

8MM_4570aa_[20]

As part of its work to consider a mural in the Log depicting Mohawk leader Theyanoguin (also known as Chief or King Hendrick) and Col. Ephraim Williams, the Committee on Campus Space and Institutional History hosted a community forum in late April. The committee’s six student members opened the forum by sharing different perspectives and stories they encountered about the mural while researching it. Excerpts of their talks are shared here. The committee’s recommendations for the mural, accepted by President Adam Falk in late May, can be read at http://bit.ly/1PeTfBN.

 

THE CLIMATE

How do we interact with history as it is represented on campus? This question is not just a “fall of 2015” issue or a “Williams” issue. At the time our committee was appointed, institutions across America were having very public controversies regarding the issue. The Log mural, if left uncovered, could have brought parts of that public firestorm to Williams, and the committee would have struggled to do its work. We all needed to take a step back, take a breath, collect ourselves and begin to think more broadly. Early in our work as a committee, we became aware that the mural exists in relationship to a dense web of stories. We want to put these stories into dialogue with each other for the sake of a deeper and wider understanding of their interconnections, disconnections and implications. —Matthew Hennessy ’17

THE NATIVE AMERICANS

When examining the mural, many people instinctively fixate on the authenticity of the depicted Mohawk men, especially their style of dress, and classify the mural as a breach of historical accuracy. Although Hendrick actually favored the European style of dress, it is limiting to assume that the discomfort surrounding the mural stems solely from this fact. Instead, this uneasiness derives from an issue of context. If you look at Williams today, there is a very evident lack of Native American representation within the student body. I am one of five federally recognized Native American students on campus. There is also a lack of Indigenous imagery. This mural is the most prominent display, and presenting a critical object that illustrates only positive colonial-Indigenous relations to a population that is wholly uneducated in Native American history whitewashes the broader history of the area. The Mohawk are no longer here, and this region carries with it a history of great violence and forced displacement that many have forgotten about. —Ariana Romeo ’19, enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation

THE FOUNDER

Ephraim Williams was born into a powerful religious family in the British colony of Massachusetts and spent much of his young life surveying portions of Massachusetts that his family controlled. In 1754, he was instated as commander of Fort Massachusetts. Having spent much of his life prior to the war shaping the lives of colonists and Native Americans, he died leaving behind a sizable portion of his estate with the intention of chartering a new academic institution, a “Free School,” in this land he once controlled. As part of his will, he required that both the school and town be named after him. The signing of this will is portrayed in another mural in the Log, directly across from the one of Mohawk King Hendrick and Col. Ephraim Williams. —Elizabeth Poulos ’19

THE WAR(S)

This painting is of the morning of “The Bloody Morning Scout” on Sept. 8, 1755. Chief Hendrick and Col. Ephraim Williams were allies fighting on the British side of the French and Indian War. They were ordered to reinforce the garrison of Fort Edward, 14 miles away, and were ambushed along the way. Both leaders died that day, as did the majority of their command. In the mural I see two distinctive units working together, going over the maps with their respective commanders. It looks to me like Chief Hendrick and Col. Williams are equals. The Mohawks are presented as willing allies, but what is the real nature of their alliance? What is the real military context? Is it World War II—the mural was painted in 1942— or is it the French and Indian War? —Jake Bingaman ’19, former U.S. Navy SEAL

THE ARTIST

Stanley Rowland, the artist of the mural, was born in Shelburne Falls and grew up on Church Street in North Adams. He knew Williams College. He went abroad to Cherbourg, France, to study painting in December 1925 and returned in March to “decorate a mansion” in Nantucket with a mural titled Whaling Saga. Given that this mural of Chief Hendrick and Col. Williams is hung high and not in our direct line of vision, it is intended to “decorate” the space, glanced at and immediately understood. It’s incredibly balanced—three figures kneeling, three standing. Three colonists, three Mohawk Indians. It reminded alumni and students to see themselves as being part of a continuity, of a proud past. But it’s depicting a received history. Rowland gives the mural a context of peace and equality, which we know did not exist when it was painted in 1942. —Alexander Jen ’19

THE LOG

Many of the decorations in the Log, but especially the mural, aid in telling a common story about the college’s founding. The beginning of the college came with the death of Ephraim Williams. This myth is undeniably important as it has even informed our school motto E liberalitate E. Williams, armigeri: “Through the generosity of E. Williams, soldier.” But alumni and students understand the Log—and the more abstract mythos of the college—differently. To alumni, the Log was an amazing student space that defined people’s weekends and weeknights as well as an environment to revel in the mythos of Williams College. For current students, it’s that place with the covered up mural, duck-fat fries and the occasional trivia night. The overly simplistic story becomes offensive, as it doesn’t fully address the relationship between Native Americans and Europeans at the time or ever. The story is in many ways incomplete. —Tom Riley ’18

Photos by Mark McCarty