The controversy around the unofficial mascot of Amherst College could be nearing an end. On the agenda in the next few days for the college’s board of trustees: the future of Lord Jeff.
British general Jeffery Amherst was a key player in the French and Indian war — and kind of famous. A town in western Massachusetts was named after him by the Royal Government in Boston. And historians say Amherst was considered a hero, to some.
You see, the bloody conflict won much of Canada for the British, but Amherst still had to contend with Native Americans who’d fought alongside the French.
“And he says in part in here,” says Amherst College special collections librarian Michael Kelly, reading a letter Amherst wrote in 1762, to the British head of native American affairs. “‘I cannot imagine how the Indians should have cause to complain of their lands being taken from them…'”
From his post in New York, Amherst told his men to take no prisoners. And then came what is now an infamous letter, in which Amherst suggests, “Could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?”
Historians say it is not clear the tactic was ever used at Amherst’s bequest. But a suggestion of biological warfare tends to stick to one’s resume.
Amherst College is named after the town — not the man. But Lord Jeffrey Amherst did became the school’s mascot — and its sports teams called the Lord Jeffs and Lady Jeffs — and it happened gradually.
In 1905, student James Shelley Hamilton wrote a song about Lord Jeffrey. It became so popular it was used later in the 1953 movie version of “Titanic,” sung by a group of passengers moments before the vessel hit an iceberg:
“To the Frenchmen and the Indians, he didn’t do a thing.”
Lyrics, tongue in cheek? Perhaps. But the Lord Jeff and all he represents became a lightning rod last fall for Amherst College and its increasingly diverse student body. Forty-three percent of its U.S. students identify as people of color. And in November, in solidarity with students protesting racism at Yale and the University of Missouri, a group called Amherst Uprising organized an afternoon event at the library.
Senior Ben Walker says it ended up being a three-day sit-in.
“Students of color, low income students, students those who had felt marginalized at some point in their Amherst career…stood up and spoke to the college community. This whole area was packed,” Walker says.
And getting rid of the mascot, Lord Jeff, was a central part of Amherst students’ demands.
Walker had already dressed up at football games like a potential new mascot — a moose. inspired by the moose that wandered onto campus in 2014 before falling, tranquilized, in the college president’s yard.
Walker says when he wore the costume at homecoming games, “The football moms booed and threw their trash at me, and [I] got pushed around a few times.”
So, maybe not a moose for a mascot. But in the days after the November 2015 protest, the student government polled students about the Lord Jeff. Eighty-three percent of of them wanted him gone.
Among alumni, there appears to be less consensus. A survey released in December found 53 percent of respondents feel “unfavorably” about the mascot. But Amherst College graduate Gary Holman says almost to a man, his entire Class of 1951 (and, at that point, the school admitted only men) wants to keep Lord Jeff in place.
Holman has raised thousands of dollars for the school. He’s been a reunion chairman. And he has the ring.
“I sent an email to the college with a picture of a ring that I had been wearing for 65 years, with emblazoned on the top is Lord Jeff sitting on a rearing horse,” Holman says. “That was the official class ring of the college.”
Holman says if you’re not talking about changing the name of the college, and the name of the college’s Lord Jeffrey Inn, then this is nonsense.
“They aren’t thinking of changing the name of anything named Washington — including the city of Washington. and he was a slave-owner,” Holman adds.
Lord Jeffery’s actions were British government policy, says historian Kevin Sweeney, who teaches at Amherst College.
Sweeney is an alum of the rival Williams College, so he says he doesn’t feel like he should take a position on Lord Jeff. But he says there is a danger that in the effort to erase names, you erase history.
“To sanitize it in ways that can be just as problematic as not recognizing the problematic aspects of these individuals,” Sweeney says. “They are part of the history of this country that we really have to continue to wrestle with.”
Starting Thursday, Amherst College’s board will also wrestle with history. They’ll talk about the future of Lord Jeff, and whether it’s time to expel the general from campus.