This Juneteenth, local nonprofit organization Ancestral Bridges teamed up with the Amherst Historical Society & Museum to present The Juneteenth Heritage Walking Tour.  

This 1.5-mile tour explores the history of, and contributions made by generations of Black families in Amherst through storytelling, artwork, and special exhibits.  

The tour was curated by descendants of these families, and Zydalis Bauer spoke with Anika Lopes, founder of Ancestral Bridges, to learn more.  

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This Juneteenth, the local nonprofit organization Ancestral Bridges teamed up with the Amherst Historical Society and Museum to present the Juneteenth Heritage Walking Tour.

This one-and-a-half mile tour explores the history and contributions made by generations of Black families in Amherst through storytelling, artwork and special exhibits. The tour was curated by the descendants of these families, and I spoke with organizers to learn more.

Anika Lopes, Ancestral Bridges: It was incredibly important to me as a descendant, to really celebrate the first Black and Afro-Indigenous families of Amherst that connect the town to the military acts that ended slavery in America — assisted with ending slavery in America on June 19, 1865. And that is a lesser known history that was really — it’s right here in the town and kind of buried away in something I was not even aware of as a youth growing up in Amherst.

So, it was really important to me that we not only highlight that, but also follow the footsteps of these folks and really highlight their contributions to this community.

Zydalis Bauer: I was actually also surprised about some of the history that we have right here in our backyard in western Massachusetts and shocked that it’s not something that we learn about more often.

So, the tour begins in the West Cemetery. So, talk to me about the significance of starting at that location and the ties that it has to Juneteenth.

Anika Lopes: West Cemetery is the resting place of the Thompson brothers. The Thompson brothers were actually — they all served in either the Massachusetts Volunteer 54th Infantry Regiment or the Fifth Calvary. My four times great grandfather, Christopher Thompson, was in the Fifth Calvary and he traveled with those brave soldiers who actually went to Texas to deliver that news of freedom.

It serves as a marker of history and people who helped build this town in many ways.

Zydalis Bauer: You mentioned being a descendant of these generations of Black families in Amherst yourself. And I know that this tour is unique in being that it is descendant-led and curated by descendants.

Why was that important and what added value does that bring to this tour, having that perspective?

Anika Lopes: Well, one, I’m told, is the first of its kind in this area. And I think it is incredibly important for descendants to tell their stories. You know, it’s wonderful when, you know, we have historians or they’re told through archives, but there’s nothing like descendants telling their stories.

This was also inspired by the acts of my grandfather, Dudley Bridges Sr, who grew up in Springfield by way of Georgia, and he had initiated acts to highlight and find home for these Civil War tablets that were gifted to the town of Amherst in 1893. And what’s unique about them is they include the names of Black soldiers, which wasn’t commonplace at that time.

So, we were inspired to really carry on his efforts, as we did last year with the Juneteenth celebration, and then carry on this year to — to go through the town.

Zydalis Bauer: So, let’s talk about some of these historic spots, because this one and a half mile walking tour stops at some of these key spots in Amherst, such as the Emily Dickinson Museum and Hope Church. And it also features art exhibits and other special exhibits as well.

So, what went into choosing the locations and how do they immerse visitors in that day-to-day life experience that generations of Black families went through and are still going through?

Anika Lopes: They’re all pointed, they’re all epic and lesser-known Black historical landmarks.

So, Emily Dickinson was carefully chosen. Charles Thompson was actually a fiddler for the Dickinsons. And there’s also leads that history of some of those descendants being with Amherst College.

I had personally been inspired by that, by seeing the new Dickinson series during the pandemic shutdown, and looking at in some of the, though fictional scenes, where Emily is — is partying with Black people in a barn and knowing like who they would be, who — who they would have been.

And these are all spaces that this is this is really a first for in many ways. The Amherst History Museum, this was the first time that Black and Afro-Indigenous families have been on the walls in that space. So, it was incredibly important for Ancestral Bridges to have an exhibit that was fully curated by descendants in that space.

The Hope Church and the Goodwin Church, these churches were established by these families. So, it was wonderful to have them there and call attention to them, they’re the first and oldest standing Black churches here in Amherst. And they really should be celebrated as such.

Zydalis Bauer: I know that you describe this tour as “every step tells a story.”

So, is there a favorite story or an interesting fact that you uncovered while organizing this tour that you’d like to share?

Anika Lopes: Oh, gosh, there are so many! It’d probably be so hard to choose.

I think, just really, I would say just that reminder of just the — the unity that that the Black community at that time had, you know. Just hearing stories that were well, well beyond me that I had touched that are more common before my generation of how, you know, these were the artists, musicians, the entrepreneurs, the doctors, the cooks, the builders that were all accountable. So, even if you weren’t someone’s child, you were — they were responsible.

But I will say, as relates to me, one of the ancestors, Henry Jackson, I did learn that he was in part responsible for a huge hat factory that was here in Amherst that ended up being number one in the country.

I’m a milliner. I make hats. And I never would have associated Amherst, really, with the hat business, period, and especially not through, you know, Black business. So, that was a connection for me.

I was really amazed to know that Henry Jackson had actually started bringing palm leaves to the area, which were used to make straw hats. And a lot of the Black families and even the poor, probably Irish at the time helped and this is what they would do to earn extra income. And then later on came the hills factories. So, you know, it’s just interesting.

I know he, at that time, probably would not have been able to have a business, but he was trusted clearly at this time because there were no banks in Amherst and he was actually bringing the money back and forth and had a little transportation business.

Zydalis Bauer: And that brings me to my next point, because I’m always fascinated by history and learning about where we’re from and everything.

So, as a seventh generation descendant like yourself, what do you hope people take away from this tour?

Anika Lopes: We — we have a lot of work to do. Our exhibit at the History Museum, we ended with a — we ended very purposefully with a campaign through an artist and physician, Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker.

And this campaign is really her brainchild, and it is called Tote to Vote, And that deals with voter suppression. We wanted to make sure this is, you know, where — where do we go from here?

You know, we’re celebrating the past, really, to focus on its relevance to the future and just the courageous acts of those who stepped forward when they didn’t have the choices that we do now. There was no one interviewing them to get their message across, you know?

For — for us all to really, you know, take part and honor that and make sure that we’re doing that not only to connect and empower the youth and especially our youth of color to, you know, for them to celebrate that, you know, they come from heroes, you know? And really be inspired by that, but as bold to think about what can we do to carry this forward so we’re not celebrating this history on a month or a day out of the year?