Harm and Healing

Bilal Ansari portrait

Bilal Ansari, vice president for campus engagement, felt it was his calling to work at Williams after learning of his father’s experience there with racism.

Almost fifty years after a racist incident drove his father out of Williamstown, a son begins the work of helping him—and the Williams community—to heal.

By Bilal Ansari, as told to Julia Munemo
Photograph by Dana Smith

 

My great-grandparents Harold and Agnes Logan worked at the Chi Psi fraternity house on Main Street in Williamstown for 30 years. Harry Sr. did maintenance work and grounds-keeping, and Agnes cleaned and cooked, though reports from fraternity brothers over the years suggest the Logans were more like houseparents than help. Harry taught them how to hunt and fish, for instance, and had a mean hangover cure the students depended on that gave rise to his nickname, “Doc.”

They lived in the basement of the fraternity—what is now called Spencer House. When their second child was born, in 1950, they rented some rooms on the second floor of a house on Arnold Street owned by the only other Black family in town.

My great-grandfather was a World War II veteran, drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1939 and placed in an all-Black unit at the Naval Air Station Quonset Point in Rhode Island, where he worked as a machinist on warplanes. He and my great-grandmother had wanted to buy a house with a yard when their kids were young. Even though they had enough in savings for a down payment and good jobs at the college, they weren’t able to get a mortgage. And Colonial Village, where many new homes were available for sale, had a whites-only restrictive covenant.

Finally, in 1962, after my great-grandparents spent years applying and being rejected, two fraternity brothers stepped in and co-signed their loan for a house on Maple Street. The Logans were grandparents before they ever owned their own place.

That summer, my 14-year-old father and his siblings boarded a northbound bus in New York City to visit their grandparents in Williamstown for the first time. When they stepped off the bus and walked into the new house, the mood was jubilant. The grandchildren set down their bags and, reunited with their cousins, set off on a short walk to the store to buy milk to make ice cream.

They didn’t get far before they passed a group of white boys about their age who called over to Harry Jr., who’d grown up in Williamstown, and said, “Who are those niggers you got with you?”

To my father, those were fighting words, and he wasn’t scared of the challenge. The fight was quick—my father landed one punch, with the result of a bloody nose—and soon the cousins continued on their way. When they got home with the milk, there was a white mob waiting for them.

At this time, the college was beginning the process of abolishing fraternities. But Chi Psi held the deed to my great-grandparents’ house and employed them both. They’d been told Agnes could find work in the newly established Dining Services, and Harry Sr. could work in Buildings and Grounds. Plans for their continued employment were being made, but nothing was set—and the mob was made up of Williams College administrators.

They demanded my father and his siblings get on the next bus out of town. If not, they said, the Logans would never work at Williams again. It broke my great-grandfather’s heart to send his grandchildren back to the bus station, but he didn’t have a choice. He went on to work in Buildings and Grounds, and she at Dining Services, until they retired in 1971. As a parting gift, and in their final formal act as a fraternity, the Chi Psi brothers paid off the Logan’s mortgage on the Maple Street house and inducted Harry Sr. into their brotherhood—the only Black member—in their last ceremony on Williams’ campus.

For my father, being run out of Williamstown by an angry white mob was just one of several traumatic racist experiences in his young life. But of the stories he shared with me growing up, the one I’ve laid out here was not among them. It came to me, through tears, almost 50 years after it happened, when I called to tell him I was applying for a job at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

“Which one?” he asked.

I didn’t expect that he’d heard of Williams, because I never had.

I was living in New Haven, Conn., at the time, and my dad flew out from California to drive up to Williamstown with me for my interview for the position of Muslim chaplain. It was 2011. He cried most of the way, pointing out things he remembered seeing from the bus window as he digested the shame and regret on his way out of town all those years ago.

“If you work at Williams,” he said, “maybe it will finally be a restoration and allow my healing with this place.”

Discovering that my great-grandparents had lived here made this strange place suddenly feel familiar, and I felt deep in my soul that it was my calling to work at Williams. I wanted to build restorative practices and help create a community of hospitality and welcome, so that no visitor to town and campus will ever have to experience what my family endured.

Our first stop in town was the East Lawn Cemetery. We told the groundskeeper we were looking for Harold Logan’s grave, and he said, “Doc? I’ll take you there right now. He’s at the top of the hill in the military circle, and Agnes is down the hill.”

My great-grandfather is buried in a spot that overlooks Williams’ campus. His legend lives on today, but so does my father’s shame and anger at being run out of town. This place has a complicated history, and I have my own love-hate relationship with the town. But my father and family are proud of my work at Williams and in town, and their lived experiences inspire me to work for racial equity and justice for all who ride up on a bus from New York City or fly here from across the globe.

My family story is painful, but it’s not all bad—and it’s crucial to do the work of revisiting our past to understand where we’re headed in the future.

Portrait of Julia Munemo

Julia Munemo writes and edits for Williams Magazine and is the author of The Book Keeper: A Memoir of Race, Love and Legacy (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2020).

Photograph self portrait of Bilal Ansari

Bilal Ansari served as Williams’ Muslim chaplain and assistant director for the Center for Learning in Action from 2011 to 2014. He is now the assistant Vice President for campus engagement.

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