Chalk Talk with Abbie Abbott: Time to honor what students have learned


  • Former UMass Amherst professor Edwin Driver is interviewed at his home in South Hadley on Jan. 15. AP

For the Gazette
Monday, October 25, 2021

Pandemic school was a challenge to education as we had known it. But in Amherst we turned it into an opportunity to look at our teaching and learning — not just how, but what.

We took advantage of several nationally acclaimed and inspirational speakers who were generously available to us through internet connections, including Ibram X. Kendi, Gholdy Muhammad, Bryan Stevenson and Bettina Love.

Their messages were applied across disciplines: restoring humanity for all children, education systems where all students thrive, involving students in action for social justice, and anti-racism dispelling the idea that there is something inherently better or worse about any racial group.

Amherst teachers and staff were able to meet together, electronically, in diverse groups, where previously mute voices were heard, telling their truths. It should not be their responsibility to have to educate white adults, but it was very helpful when people of color spoke out about details of hurt in their experiences in the school system.

Last March, the front page of The Daily Hampshire Gazette featured UMass Professor Emeritus Edwin D. Driver, one of the first two African Americans on the faculty of a state college in 1948, in an article about reparations in Amherst. Driver spoke of details of racial injustices, discrimination, humiliation and hurt he had endured in Amherst.

For example, no one would rent him an apartment. There were apartments available until he showed up in person, when they were suddenly already rented. He finally got a room in a boardinghouse in Northampton because the woman thought he was Polish. In a quote at the end of the article, Professor Driver mentioned Old Chapel, where his first office was located in the basement, saying, “If they would rename that after me, that would be the ideal reparation.”

In May, after a year of being immersed in anti-racism and justice issues, a high school student with whom I was working wrote a letter to the chancellor of UMass. The following is an excerpt:

“We read about Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and escaped dressed and with papers that allowed him to pass as a sailor. He went on to New Bedford, Massachusetts where he worked as ship’s caulker, but white laborers wouldn’t work next to him. Later at an American Anti-slavery Society meeting William Lloyd Garrison learned that an escaped slave was in the audience and asked Douglass to speak to them. Douglas became a great speaker, a persuasive writer, and an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln. Douglass’ friends bought his freedom.

“We also read about the underground railroad and the cruelty of the slave patrollers who evolved into the Ku Klux Klan after 1865.

“In an interview with basketball player Bill Russell, Russell told how Lester Maddox, later governor of Georgia, in 1969 closed his chicken restaurant in Atlanta so he wouldn’t have to serve Black people. Russell commented that Black and brown people are still fighting for justice in every sector of American society, from education to health care to sports. ‘Black kids today don’t grow up worried the Klan will kill them in the middle of the night, they worry the police will.’

The student then referred to the article about Professor Driver, calling for action:

“Dr. Driver is 96 years old. It could take years to officially change the name of Old Chapel. We feel that as a community we need to show Dr. Driver that we value him and honor what he has contributed to our community. We would like to see Dr. Driver’s name on the sign in front of Old Chapel, and we need it right away.”

Our students were very engaged with the true African American and Native American stories that were included in the telling of American history this past year. But they are looking for more than academic presentations. They want to see real changes. Douglass’ friends bought his freedom. Our students are looking for us to show that we are serious about making the world a better place for people who have been treated unfairly in the past.

I don’t know if Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy ever saw this student’s letter, but I too wrote a letter, and UMass Professor Dr.Amilcar Shabazz wrote an excellent proposal requesting that Professor Driver be honored. Many community members have also voiced their support, but so far nothing has changed.

If we want the respect and trust of our students, we must offer them more than empty rhetoric.

Abbie Abbott, Ed.D., has been an educator (teacher, administrator, paraeducator) for 57 years, in schools in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania; Colombia, South America; Hawaii; Stamford, Connecticut; White Plains, Harlem, and the Bronx, New York; and Amherst.