It’s a cliche for a reason: Those who don’t know their history are bound to repeat it. There is a corollary to this axiom, however, that often goes unheeded: Those ignorant of history are blind to the ways that the past still shapes our present, regardless of our individual actions and sentiments.
Among other things revealed in a research study about racism in Williamstown was that the White Oaks neighborhood was once the main haven for residents of color, and locals referred to it as “N****r Hill” until the late 1800s.
Williamstown is currently grappling with those lessons, and like any serious reckoning with history, it is both painful and necessary. A recent study conducted by Williams College environmental studies students sheds light on some uncomfortable truths about the community’s history: White Oaks, a haven for Black residents in the 19th century, was ostracized, demonized and eventually gentrified, pushing generations of residents of color out of their homes. It was a process accelerated by racial terror: Ku Klux Klan campaigns of robed riders riding through town and cross-burnings meant to threaten Black families. The KKK, which also targeted Jews and Catholics in addition to Black people, became embedded in the community, staging local recruitment drives and holding meetings at White Oaks Congregational Church.
Much as many might wish, this is not a historical reality on which Williamstown can simply shut a door. Residents and officials alike have found that out the hard way in the here and now. In the Colonial Village section of town, some homebuyers and sellers have been shocked to find that properties still have covenant restrictions first established in the early 20th century to prevent people of color from owning property or living in the area. The following text is still found on most of the deeds in the subdivision: “No persons of any race other than the white race shall use or occupy any buildings or any lot, except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”
Such racist restrictions were made illegal by a 1947 Supreme Court ruling, but the fact that they are still found on deeds to this day underscores how prejudice of the past can shape a community’s present. The covenants might be unenforceable now, but they’re more than just a grim reminder. They are part and parcel of the widespread discrimination racial and ethnic minorities faced, and their legacy is felt even as their practices have faded. It certainly played a part in the process by which corners of Williamstown became far less diverse than they were in the 19th and early-20th centuries. The Colonial Village is far from the only neighborhood in America where similar housing rules took root, and it’s undeniable that these and other racist restrictions helped lay the foundations for the racial inequities in housing and wealth our nation is still confronting.
For anyone who doubts the truth of systemic racism, Williamstown’s past should be a convincing case stufy. Even if there were no racist people residing in Williamstown, these covenants would still exist and their undeniable impact on the present would still be felt. Bilal Ansari, who works in the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Williams College, told The Eagle how these policies directly affected his family, which traces several generations of ancestry in Williamstown. Mr. Ansari’s great-grandfather, a Black veteran of World War II, wanted to move into the former Colonial Village when he returned from the war. The racist covenants on the properties, however, prevented him from doing so.
Knowledge of the past is morally necessary if we are to comprehend where we stand now and how to move into the future while living up to our most cherished values of fairness, equality and decency. Yet there are still some who would prefer to bury these truths instead of reckon with them.
This was apparent when some readers reacted negatively to The Eagle’s coverage of the Williams College study. “Keep it in the past,” one commenter wrote after The Eagle posted the story on its Facebook page. “Trying to light a fire, are we?” another wrote. “Keep stirring the pot,” yet another added sarcastically.
The racist covenants still on deeds in Colonial Village today are testament to the fact that history does not neatly relegate itself to the past. We should acknowledge that. Racism is not a problem of yesterday; it is a problem of today. The “pot” has already been stirred — by centuries of racist terror and policy from chattel slavery to lynch mobs to Jim Crow to redlining to disproportionate incarceration. The Civil Rights Act, which sought to outlaw institutional racism in America, is less than 60 years old — younger than many people in this nation. Meanwhile, the Williams College study reports that the most recent cross-burning in Williamstown occurred on the Williams campus — in the 1980s.
Indeed, the pot has not just been stirred but roiled, and even those who did not directly participate in it must have the moral courage to not look away from it. The difficult part for many about grappling with the racist realities of Williamstown’s history is that it disrupts pat narratives even across political lines. As Republicans on the national stage rail against critical race theory and unvarnished looks at history in America’s classrooms, many conservatives are hesitant to even acknowledge the existence of systemic racism. Yet for many on the other side of the aisle, Williamstown’s case might be equally disconcerting. For some, it might seem antithetical to picture hooded Klan members riding through the streets of 20th-century Williamstown, a well-educated community home to a renowned liberal arts college in the supposedly progressive bastion of Western Massachusetts. It belies the story that many well-meaning liberals likely tell themselves — that structural racism and its residual effects, while bad, fall neatly along geographic, partisan, class and education lines.
As such, there will be some who think that coming to grips with these truths about the history of Williamstown — or any town — is a stain on them personally and a backward step for their community. This could not be further from the truth. Communities have a moral duty to be honest with themselves about their own history and how it impacts them today, which is precisely what many in Williamstown are trying to do. That’s also what we’re trying to do through our coverage as an institution of community journalism. If we care about the present and the future, so too must we care about the past. Recognizing racism in our past does not make us racists today. Rather, it equips us with awareness of the events and forces of history that have been transmuted, sometimes unknowingly, into structures we interact with now. Just ask the homeowners in Colonial Village who are horrified to find their properties’ deeds contain vestiges of the vicious legacies of segregation and white supremacy.
“It felt like a very ugly testament to discriminatory housing. It perpetuates the harm, so, it was present in our minds,” one homeowner told The Eagle. “And it has hung over our feelings about the house. It was definitely something we wanted to reckon with.”
In the Berkshires, we care deeply about our shared history, and rightly so: It is a rich tapestry full of imperfect people and myriad events marching through us toward the future. Massachusetts was the first state in the union to do away with the institution of chattel slavery because of the courage and grit of Great Barrington’s own Elizabeth Freeman. W.E.B. Du Bois, a Berkshire native son, was instrumental in shaping the civil rights movement. And in Williamstown, many prominent figures aided runaway slaves in the 19th century as they escaped to freedom on the Underground Railroad. If we are to be proud of these portions of our history, though, we must deal with the truth of our entire history, some of which is painful but all of which must be acknowledged. If not, then we aren’t proud of our history — we are ignorant of it.
Like it or not, history is not yet done with us. As such, we cannot say that we are done with history. That’s why, perhaps to the chagrin of some, we report the past, and will continue to do so.