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Histories Unseen

Opinion | December 4, 2017

“The American inland empire was pushing westward. For the first time, large-scale manufacturing was being established. Every ocean port of the world was coming to know American commerce borne by fast sailing ships, many of which were built in yards on the Mystic River in the shadow of Tufts College. In 1852, in spite of the gathering clouds of the slavery question, enterprise and optimism about the future were in the bracing sea breezes of New England”.

-The Centennial History of Tufts College

 

“You guys go to a really good school. Your campus is so beautiful.”

Said the young White lady of the young White couple in our shared Lyft line cruising down Professors Row. After her remarks, I looked around to find what she thought was so beautiful. Was it Ballou, with its high white columns and warm porch light shining out upon the steps and the luscious green lawn? Before I could find my answer, my vision was struck by the bright lights glaring down on the tennis courts outside of Fletcher. Maybe she was gawking at the beauty of the wonderfully manicured fraternity and sorority houses that continued down the Row. Regardless, I wasn’t impressed by the bright lights, the pristine edifices, or the neat hill. I was, however, reminded of the first time my parents and I visited Tufts and distinctly remembered us all saying the same thing…what happened?

Sure, most days, by most standards, this campus is a sight to behold, but it has an ugly side, a ghostly shadow, that I can’t unsee.

This history is written in The Centennial History of Tufts College, an archived text written in 1952 to commemorate the first 100 years since Tufts’ founding. Charles Tufts, after whom the college was named, donated much of the land that the school campus is built upon. Tufts, so the story goes, “pointed [symbolically] to the top of the windswept height he had given to the new college and said, ‘I will put a light on it.’” This symbolic light would come to be Ballou Hall, once the sole academic building for Tufts College, and now the Tufts University administrative building. Eventually, the light would come to represent the entire hillside campus itself. However, every bright light casts a shadow.

To the west of Ballou, resting upon what would later become the residential quad for Tufts undergraduates, was a water reservoir that was often called the Rez. According to the Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History, “during excavations conducted by the Metropolitan District Commission for an access road to the Rez in 1879 a Native American burial mound was unearthed. Nine skeletons along with various artifacts were found.” While waiting for my usual nutella latte at the Rez Café, I often wonder if anyone else in line is burdened with the knowledge that, upon finding the remains and artifacts, Tufts students repurposed them as dorm room decorations. Within the history of any American institution or location there lies a deeper history of Native American erasure. It is widely understood that with the arrival of colonial settlers upon the Americas, particularly on the land of modern day Massachusetts, the lives and ways of living of many Native Peoples were lost to disease, dislocation, war, and suppression.

After the desecration of Native spaces, the Americolonial Empire carved deeper scars into the same land our campus rests upon today. Over time, John Winthrop’s Ten Hills Farm, a 600-acre plantation cultivated with slave labor, was passed down from one slaveholding statesmen to the next, embedding itself into what is now Somerville. The Royall Plantation still stands today, not too far from Tufts’ Fitness Center—barely a jog away.

In the wake of colonial settlement, below Tufts’ newly donated, state-of-the-art complexes, a reservoir of histories left untold, unseen, and obscured, still remains. The young White lady was right—our campus is beautiful. Since its founding in 1852, Tufts has applied layer upon layer of expensive, ‘enterprising’, ‘optimistic’ veneer to mask its rotten history. By forgetting, by unseeing, by building over and upon, we continually recreate the genocide and exploitation of Black and Brown people at the hands of our elite American institutions.