Guest columnist Robert H. Romer: Racial covenants in Amherst deeds

  • In this 2016 file photo, Alyssia Bailey of Georgia walks the streets of Hatfield with Robert Romer of Amherst, left, to explore the history of Bailey’s distant relative, Amos Newport, who lived and worked as a slave in Hatfield. Behind Bailey is her sister, Heidi Bailey, and Heidi’s daughter, Sophia George. Gazette file photo

Friday, September 25, 2020

Indeed, as reporter Scott Merzbach observed in his article last month about those who are petitioning the town to address the issue of reparations, there are houses on Blue Hills Road whose deeds contain restrictions that were included for the purpose of forbidding sale or even rental “to any colored person or persons.”

Yet the 1949 buyer in the sale described by Merzbach was in fact not restricted in any way by that language, for a 1948 Supreme Court decision (Shelley v. Kraemer) had ruled those covenants unenforceable. I suspect that the decision to include those appalling restrictions in the original Blue Hills Road deeds was reinforced by the legacy of an historic real estate transaction that took place a century earlier, in 1846, in that very neighborhood.

In that year, Melita Paine, a Black woman, purchased a piece of land on what is now the corner of Blue Hills Road and Northampton Road, thus becoming the first Black person of either sex to own property in Amherst. Melita Paine was the wife of one Amos Newport. And Amos’s grandfather, also Amos Newport, was born in Africa about 1715, captured as a boy, brought to America and sold to a Springfield merchant who sold him in 1727 to Joseph Billings, a Hatfield farmer.

At some time after his arrival in America, Amos (the elder) took the initiative of giving himself a surname (Newport) and thus he is known to us by that name, not simply by a name assigned to him by his owner, such as Caesar or Pompey or Phillis, like almost all the enslaved Black people who lived here in colonial times.

Amos Newport never became free, but he has long been a hero of mine because in the 1760s, he decided that he wanted to be free and went to court, twice, to sue for his freedom. Unfortunately, he lost in court but his “freedom suits” probably helped to move Massachusetts toward the ending of slavery near the end of the 1700s.

Melita’s grandson Dwight Newport lived in Amherst on the property that Melita had purchased, part of that property remaining in the Newport family until 2006. For a significant portion of the 20th century, Dwight and his son Edward lived next door to each other, in the houses now labeled as 193 and 199 Northampton Road, just below Blue Hills Road.

Both Dwight and Edward worked for Amherst College, and when the college abolished fraternities in 1984, one of those fraternities (where Edward had worked) was renamed Newport Dormitory in their honor. And in 2016 Edward’s great-granddaughter, a resident of Atlanta, visited Amherst and the dormitory named in honor of her ancestors and then walked the main street of Hatfield where Amos Newport had walked as a slave. Three hundred years of history, nine generations of Newports!

As with any town, there are parts of our history of which we are not proud. For instance, several of Amherst’s leading citizens in colonial times (including our first minister, David Parsons, who served from 1739 to 1781) owned Black slaves. But there are many parts of our history that can give us pleasure. To cite just one example, during the Civil War, in spite of all the challenges faced at home by our Black citizens, 22 Black men from Amherst (a very large fraction of the adult Black male population) chose to fight for the Union, and five of those men died in the cause of freedom.

For details of the multi-generation story of the Newports, see Eric Weber’s essay on the website “Freedom Stories of the Pioneer Valley” (freedomstoriespv.wordpress.com).

Robert H. Romer lives in Amherst.