Professor Edwin Driver was one of the first Black teachers working at a flagship state university in the nation when he arrived in Amherst in 1948.
While being one of the most published professors at what would become the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the 23-year-old sociology teacher claims he was refused pay increases for decades.
When the driver and his Indian wife tried to buy a house in the predominantly white college town, they ran into roadblocks as well. Their three children were subjected to bigotry by both their neighbors and school officials.
“There are a lot of people in Amherst who haven’t had their fair share,” the now 96-year-old professor emeritus said recently at his home in nearby South Hadley. “I ended up becoming the department’s lowest-paid professor, but still its most productive.”
Driver, as well as other current and former Black residents, could be paid in the future.
Amherst, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Boston, is one of hundreds of groups and organizations around the country seeking reparations for African-Americans. They include the state of California, cities such as Providence, Rhode Island, religious groups such as the Episcopal Church, and prestigious universities such as Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The campaigns, some of which have been ongoing for years, have gained traction in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May. President Joe Biden has also expressed support for forming a federal commission to research reparations for African-Americans, a measure that has languished in Congress for decades.
The diverse approaches, according to Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, could serve as models for a national reparations program. He’s also not surprised that Amherst College, a long-time liberal stronghold, is taking on the subject.
“It proves that every society in America, regardless of scale, is a microcosm of the larger issue,” Howard said. “If you search hard enough, you’ll find these stuff. ”
Amherst’s campaign began with a petition signed by two white yoga teachers last summer, and culminated in a town council resolution passed in December committing Amherst to a “course of redress” for Black citizens “injured or affected by discrimination and racial inequality.”
Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews, co-founders of the Reparations for Amherst campaign, led the petition drive, saying they wanted to provide something “tangible and healing” for local Black families in the midst of national demonstrations and chaos.
They contend that Amherst, a college town with a population of nearly 38,000 people, did not become 75% white and 5% black by mistake.
According to Miller and Andrews’ study, discriminatory housing policies have prohibited Black families from buying homes in desirable areas of town for decades. At UMass Amherst, one of the state’s largest and most prestigious colleges, black people were also denied jobs and educational opportunities.
As a result, white families in Amherst earn more than twice as much as black families, and more than half of the city’s Black population lives in poverty.
“Amherst wants to think of itself as progressive,” Andrews said, “but that ideallism isn’t always borne out.” “There are strong economic and social disparities.”
Kathleen Anderson, a former president of the Amherst NAACP branch, said she’s glad the reparations campaign was started by white residents.
The next move, she says, must come from the Black community. This spring, Anderson and other Black citizens are participating in virtual discussions about what reparations might look like.
Anderson, a former member of the school committee, wants to see the process solve a larger, structural problem, such as racial disparities in public schools. For years, she said, black teachers have complained of racist harassment and hostile work environments.
Anderson said, “Reparations can be more than a check.”
Professor of Africana studies at UMass, Amilcar Shabazz, said he’d like to see more representation of the local Black community in town landmarks and monuments. He pointed out that celebrated writers Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin both taught at UMass but aren’t well-known in the region.
He said, “We have a lot to talk about.” “I’m not sure the town is prepared for this. Is it possible to get rid of these scars? Is it possible to place a monetary value on trauma?”
Meanwhile, Miller and Andrews are looking to Evanston, Illinois as a possible model, and have invited a prominent alderman from that city to meet with Amherst’s Black residents next month.
The Chicago suburb’s reparations fund, which was created in 2019, is based on housing inequities, and uses a 3% tax on recreational marijuana purchases to assist Black residents with homeownership, including mortgage assistance and home renovation support.
Because of their role in the town’s racial divide, Driver claims the town’s higher education institutions — UMass Amherst, Amherst College, and Hampshire College — should be part of the solution. In separate comments to The Associated Press, the three institutions expressed support for the town’s efforts but did not devote any money.
Driver was the first person of color to be hired in any capacity at the university when he was hired. According to university historical records, UMass Amherst had only six Black faculty members and 36 Black students in a student body of nearly 17,000 by the late 1960s.
Driver said that he would like to be compensated for years of underpayment.
He was promoted to full professor in 1954, but he remained the lowest-paid professor in his department until the 1970s, when a new department head attempted to correct the disparity.
In 1970, Thomas Wilkinson wrote to other school officials, “We are in a situation of having to accept that Driver is an extremely impressive specialist with an excellent scholarly record whom we have not adequately recognized locally.”
Driver went on to have a successful career. The Temple and University of Pennsylvania graduate has published several books and is currently working on another. He was a visiting professor at UCLA and other prestigious universities. He also worked as a UN counselor in Iran and consulted and taught in France, India, and other countries. Throughout it all, Driver remained a stalwart at UMass, retiring in 1987.
“I would appreciate it if reparations could compensate for the missed salary,” Driver said. “I think I’d like it. I will rejoice, but I don’t believe that would ever happen.”
He hopes that at the very least, UMass will recognize the achievements of pioneering Black professors.
Driver already has a location in mind: his first office on campus, which was tucked away in the basement by the furnace, where the janitor didn’t bother to clean the trash cans.
“If they renamed it after me,” Driver remarked. “That will be the perfect recompense.”