BOSTON (SHNS) – If Amherst resident Vincent O’Connor had his druthers, the western Massachusetts town would no longer be known by that name.
In a recent appeal to the Amherst Town Council, O’Connor argued the community should take steps to distance itself from its namesake, Lord Jeffery Amherst, who advocated for biological warfare against indigenous people through the distribution of smallpox-infested blankets.
“This person whose name blemishes our community has such an odious reputation that the college named after him has replaced its sports teams’ reference to him in favor of one to an extinct distant relative of the African and Indian elephants,” O’Connor said at the council’s Feb. 28 meeting, referring to Amherst College’s mascot switch from the Lord Jeffs to the Mammoths. “How should we proceed to rid ourselves of the centuries-old colonial imposition?”
O’Connor suggested the issue be put to vote in a November 2023 referendum, which would ask residents to first decide whether to abandon the Amherst name and then select a new moniker from a list of options. Potential candidates offered by O’Connor include Harriet, in honor of abolitionist Harriet Tubman, or Sumner, after U.S. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts.
According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, others previously raised the possibility of changing the town’s name in 2017. Past discussions have floated Emily, after poet Emily Dickinson, or local indigenous tribal names as some to consider, O’Connor said at the meeting.
He’s not alone in pondering the impact of official symbols. The Legislature voted last year to create a State Seal Commission tasked with recommending changes to the state motto and seal, which have been criticized as a representation of violence and oppression against indigenous communities. That commission recently began discussing a potential extension of its December 2022 deadline.