Submitted by Robert H. Romer, of Amherst, an emeritus professor of physics at Amherst College. This essay originally appeared on the editorial page of the Daily Hampshire Gazette – Monday, January 17, 2011.
Amos Newport was born in Africa, probably before 1720, captured as a young boy, came to America via the “Middle Passage,” arrived in Springfield by an unknown route, sold by David Ingersoll of Springfield to Joseph Billing of Hatfield in 1729, was a Hatfield slave for many years, and probably died in Hatfield about 1790.
Why an Amherst building carries former slave’s name.
Those who pass Newport House, an Amherst College dormitory at the corner of Woodside Avenue and Northampton Road – if they notice the name of the building at all – probably have no idea that the name is a reminder of our colonial past, of a time when slavery was widespread in western Massachusetts. The building is named for two descendants of Amos Newport, a slave who through his efforts to become free made a difference in the history of our state. Amos was born in Africa about 1715, captured as a boy, taken to America on a slave ship, and arrived in Springfield as the property of David Ingersoll, who sold him in 1729 to Joseph Billing of Hatfield. Very little is known about Amos’s life in Hatfield, except for the very important fact that in 1766 Amos decided that he did not want to be a slave any longer and went to court to sue for his freedom.
There were a number of “freedom suits” by Massachusetts slaves at about this time, many of which were successful, often because the slave had evidence that a previous owner had promised him his freedom. But Amos made no such claim – he simply wanted to be free. Billing produced a bill of sale, properly executed and witnessed in 1729. (“I David Ingersoll … have sold & delivered a certain young Negro Boy … for consideration of fifty pounds to Joseph Billing of Hatfield … I the vendor will forever warrant against the challenges or demands of any person whatsoever … in witness whereof …”) The jury had no choice but to conclude that Amos was indeed a slave belonging to Joseph Billing. Amos was not easily deterred, though, and appealed to the highest court in the province. (Amherst lawyer Simeon Strong was the principal lawyer for the owner; at the appeal stage, he was joined by John Adams, future president.)
Unfortunately, the Superior Court simply affirmed the decision of the lower court and declared that “the said Amos was not a freeman as he alleged but the proper Slave of the said Joseph … ” Even though Amos never did become free, he tried, through every legal means available to him, and even the act of filing those two court cases probably contributed in some small way to the gradual ending of slavery in this state during the last two decades of the 1700s.
Amos’ son did become free, and by the mid-1800s there were Newports living in Amherst. (Of all the slaves who lived in the Connecticut Valley in the 1700s, very few had surnames – almost always simply names assigned by the owner such as Caesar or Jenny or Pompey. If it were not for the fact that Amos, even as a slave, had a surname, it would be nearly impossible to trace any of his descendants.) Amos’s great-great-grandson, F. Dwight Newport, served as an athletic trainer and boxing instructor at Amherst College, and his son, Edward Foster Newport, attended the college for two years as a member of the class of 1909, became an athletic trainer like his father, and was for many years custodian at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. (Both Newports, father and son, were founding members of Hope Church on Gaylord Street in Amherst, an originally all-black church dedicated in 1912 at a ceremony attended by Mary McLeod Bethune, among others, with a fund raising speech by W.E.B. Du Bois.) In 1984, when Amherst College fraternities were abolished, the fraternity houses, now dormitories, were named in honor of people who had been associated with the college and with that fraternity. And thus that dormitory was named Newport House, in honor of Dwight and Edward Newport.
After I finished my 2009 book (Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, Levellers Press), I tried to find out where and when Amos arrived in America and how he came to Springfield. Perhaps he arrived on a slave ship in Newport, Rhode Island and that was how he acquired his surname, but I have been unable to find evidence to support this speculation. I have been more successful at discovering further descendants. Until about 1990 there were Newports living in Amherst. One of my sons remembers a Newport girl from grade school. Then I met – by email – further generations of Newports. And in 2010 a 5th-grader in northern California wrote a school report about her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Amos, using my book as her source. (Needless to say, that gave me a great deal of pleasure.)
Next time you approach the stoplight as you drive into Amherst from Northampton, take a look to your right at Newport House and think about Amos Newport, who lived a life of consequence in this valley 250 years ago.