On May 15th the Belmont Hill community gathered for its annual school-wide Diversity Day, a day of community-driven reflection with no classes for students and faculty. The event offered a special confluence as national and local conversations on race, religion, gender, and class converged with a focus on Belmont Hill’s history and its connections to slavery.
The film “Traces of the Trade,” which was screened in separate locations to the school, served as a catalyst for discussion throughout the morning and afternoon. The director, producer, and narrator of the film Katrina Browne, who was active during the day’s sessions, brought a theme of the day–the legacy of slavery–to the forefront of school discussion. Browne is a descendant of the DeWolfe family, which profited from the slave trade from their hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island. Ms. Browne encouraged students to begin to reckon with the school’s past. She urged students and faculty alike to research and re-evaluate Belmont Hill’s own connections to slavery, such as the bell which stands tall outside the dining hall without any indication of its origins from a plantation in Cuba that was owned by the Atkins family, one of the founding families of Belmont Hill.
This spring semester, Mr. Hegarty taught a senior independent study examining Belmont Hill’s ties with the Atkins Family and their sugar plantations in Cuba. The seniors, James Cardichon, Gus Lamb, Lebanos Mengistu, and Sebastian Themelis, delved deeply into Belmont Hill’s history. The group ultimately connected Belmont Hill’s emergence as a local yet elite school to the much needed financial support of the Atkins Family, much of whose wealth was derived from Cuban plantations. As Lebanos mentioned during his portion of the Diversity Day presentation, “by 1886, the Atkins family had also bought the Soledad plantation with 177 patrocinados, candidly referred to as esclavos, or slaves.”
However, the group hypothesized that, without the Atkins’ family support, the school may have been unable to cope with the departures of faculty and students alike during World War Two. During his portion of the presentation, Mr. Hegarty quoted the words of Mr. Prenatt, our school archivist, that Mrs. Atkins, matriarch of the Atkins family for many decades, was the “guardian angel of the school. There have been many builders of this institution over the years, and she is one of them.”
The group opened the community to complex, yet relevant facets of Belmont Hill’s historical identity. As the school reckons with its past, the extended community will begin to address how the school moves forward in its endeavors. The newly created course Advanced Historical Research will continue investigating Belmont Hill’s history next spring.
Dr. Melvoin believes “that Diversity Day this year represented a particularly important and valuable day for the school. For one thing, in seeing the film Traces of the Trade and discussing it, both as a full school and within advisor groups, every student confronted more deeply the complex legacy of slavery in this country. For another, to learn that Belmont Hill is another New England institution that is not exempt from the legacy of America’s past is an important lesson for us all. We still have more to learn, and perhaps to do as well, but as a school we have taken a big step forward.”