WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town’s diversity committee Monday got a lesson in Williamstown’s racist history and some advice on actions that could address structural inequity.
Williams College seniors Kate Orringer and Morgan Dauk appeared before the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee to give a presentation based on their work in an Environmental Planning Workshop under professor Sarah Gardner.
Committee members Bilal Ansari and Andrew Art served as the clients on their research project, which laid out disturbing historical evidence of injustice in the town and college, including the use of a chapel in the White Oaks neighborhood by the Ku Klux Klan, the slave ownership of college namesake Ephraim Williams and town father Benjamin Simonds and the racist covenants in a town neighborhood that led residents there to take action this summer.
“I think we have a lot of reckoning to do,” Art said after Orringer and Dauk concluded their formal presentation. “Katie and Morgan have done a good job of connecting history to what’s going on today.”
Much of the town’s history is tied up in efforts to preserve class distinctions in the town, the pair argued.
“The common themes we’ll be bringing out in this presentation include how infrastructure influences the level of inclusivity in town,” Orringer said.
“One of the neighborhoods we looked at was White Oaks,” Dauk said. “We looked at it from the one of the first residents settled it in 1763 to about 1930. … It was settled for timber harvesting, but, over time, the forests were depleted and the land quality declined. With this, land value declined as well and low-income populations could afford to live there. … Slaves who had escaped their owners also sought refuge in the neighborhood. Criminals were also known to have settled in the neighborhood, likely due to the protection the isolated condition provided.
“Williamstown citizens who lived outside the neighborhood made broad generalizations about the people living there based on these factors and saw it as a place in need of social reform.”
That impulse led to gentrification efforts, and the students drew a direct line from that 19th century “reform” movement and the early 20th century KKK activity in Berkshire County.
“Your report states it, but Williams College and, particularly Albert Hopkins, established a mission in White Oaks to, as he described it, clear out the waste places in White Oaks, get rid of the Black residents in White Oaks,” Ansari said. “So the college raised money to support that effort.
“Once Albert Hopkins passed on, the college owned that mission and church for a few years. … Therefore, they supported efforts to clear out Black residents in Williamstown.”
Ansari called on the college to acknowledge that harm and work to restore Black residents to White Oaks or the town at large.
The town’s exclusionary practices also led to it giving up on its claims over the Blackinton neighborhood on the border with North Adams, an area that today is squarely within the city limits, Orringer said.
“Essentially, the part of Blackinton [at the turn of the 20th century] that was still under Williamstown control requested basic infrastructure, such as fire district water, sidewalks and street lights,” Orringer said. “But Williamstown said at the time they were not able to provide funding and did not have the resources to provide this infrastructure.
“North Adams said they could provide the infrastructure. So, ultimately, this group of Welsh mill workers, who had lower socio-economic status, were moved under the full control of North Adams.”
Ansari was particularly moved by the story Dauk told Monday of four Black residents from the White Oaks neighborhood who traveled out of town in 1857 to sell baskets they had woven. The foursome was caught in an April snowstorm and died while crossing the Petersburg Pass on the New York/Massachusetts border.
“The leaders in Williamstown at the time, the town leaders, identified the bodies but they were not taken back to be buried in Williamstown,” Dauk said. “They were buried in Petersburg [N.Y.]. Despite Williamstown being only a few miles away, they were not taken back to be buried in town.”
Ansari pointed to that story later in the meeting and challenged the current town leadership to address that historical wrong. Select Board Chair Jane Patton, who also serves on the DIRE Committee, promised to pursue it.
“It makes sense to me to see what could be done and see what restorative justice we could do,” Patton said. “If we can’t find their markers [in Petersburg], is there something else the town can do. I’d be happy to take this up with the Select Board or the Historical Commission and anybody else who can help us research this more and see what feels right to do.”
DIRE Committee member Jeffrey Johnson emphasized that the town’s exclusionary legacy extends well beyond the 19th century.
“I’ve literally seen families, because there were a lot of generational people that worked in [Williams College’s] B&G, worked in your dining halls — those people used to live in our neighborhood,” Johnson said. “And what I’ve seen is, unfortunately, a lot of those people and their parents, over time, were pushed out of Williamstown over time because of how much it costs to live here. And those people now commute.
“I know Williams definitely has some unique professors, and you’re trying to draw the best of the best. But, that said, the best of the best also are being taken care of by a group that’s being pushed out. I’ve seen people who lived in Williamstown, couldn’t make it and had to move out. … It doesn’t have to go all the way back to White Oaks. It happens right here, right now.”
Orringer and Dauk suggested several actions the town and college could take to achieve some restorative justice for the wrongs committed in the past and the inequity of the present.
The first is to address zoning bylaws that codify single-family homes on residential lots and keep Williamstown unaffordable to many potential residents.
Last year’s adoption of an accessory dwelling unit bylaw was a good step, the pair said. But they recommended incentivizing ADUs by changing the setback requirements and allowing for subdivision of residential lots and the possibility for separate ownership of a second or third dwelling on a lot.
Perhaps more radically, the students suggested that multiple family homes be allowed by right throughout the town’s General Residence zoning district.
They noted an aborted effort by the Planning Board in 2018 to break the GR district into smaller units and increase the availability of multifamily housing in some parts of the town’s residential center.
“Ours is for the whole of General Residence,” Orringer said. “As housing needs change in Williamstown, there is a need for smaller, more affordable options, especially for younger people.”
DIRE Committee member Aruna D’Souza indicated she appreciated the students’ more inclusive approach.
“I remember a lot of chit chat about the 2018 proposal to allow for multifamily housing,” D’Souza said. “One of the things that I was really confused about was the ways in which certain neighborhoods were deemed too special to be included in that proposal. That really bothered me. I was really suspicious about that. … My street was included in it, but two streets over wasn’t because, apparently, my street is in the bad part of town or something.”
Orringer and Dauk argued that residents who might oppose wholesale zoning changes are not dissimilar to their reform-minded 19th-century predecessors who sought to “clear out” the White Oaks neighborhood.
“We caution that the argument against housing density changes due to ‘changing the character of the neighborhood’ is coded language that promotes socio-economic discrimination and should not be the means by which a proposal is rejected,” Dauk said.