Honoring Gerald Penny ’77 and His Legacy

As we work to make the Amherst community more welcoming and inclusive, we must not shy away from sharing all aspects of our history, for such openness is foundational to any restorative process. Even our darkest moments must be brought to light if we are to know the harm caused and consider modes of redress. As Adam Clayton Powell Jr. said, “There is no future for a people who deny their past.”

In Amherst’s history, there is no more poignant story than that of Gerald Gilbert Penny, an accomplished young Black man from New Orleans. On September 12, 1973, Penny drowned in Pratt Pool during a swim test for new students. While his tragic death had an immediate and lasting impact on the College, to fully honor his memory requires a deeper look into its broader circumstances and a reckoning with the racist systems, structures, and assumptions that contributed to his death and that, in many ways, still affect us today.

Gerald’s death led to the elimination of the College’s swim test and the saving of future lives, as noted by his father Austin Penny Sr. in a 1973 New York Times interview. His legacy also lives on through the Gerald Penny ’77 Black Cultural Center, located on campus in the Octagon. During the dedication ceremony in 1974, Sonia Sanchez, professor of Black studies at Amherst from 1973 to 1975, read an original poem about Gerald (included below), and the organizers, Ameer Jabal ’77 and Lloyd Miller ’77, presented a gift to Gerald’s family. Visiting artist William Utermohlen unveiled a portrait of Gerald that is still displayed in the Center. 

The Gerald Penny ’77 Black Cultural Center continues to serve as a hub of Black activism and Afro-centric events and a gathering space for the Black Student Union. It now also features a mural by Kevin Soltau ’01 of Black alumni who were an inspiration to him during his time as a student. In 2016, the Black Student Union invited Soltau back to campus to expand the mural (see the Amherst magazine story). 

Exhibition & Events

An exhibition and a series of events commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Gerald Penny.

  • Exhibition in Frost Library: On view through the fall semester is material from Gerald’s time on campus, to convey a sense of the Amherst of 1973 and the world in which he lived.

  • Ceremony of Remembrance: A gathering on September 12, 2023—the date of Gerald’s death—featured remarks from President Michael Elliott and Sheree Ohen, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer; excerpts of appreciation from Gerald’s friends at the 1974 dedication of the Black Cultural Center; and opportunities for reflection and prayer. The event concluded with the ringing of the Stearns Steeple bells at the time of Gerald’s death. Read more and watch the video.

  • A Commemoration of Gerald Penny '77: Additional events occurred during Black Alumni Weekend, November 10-12, 2023, including a panel discussion by Penny’s Amherst friends and classmates. Read more and watch the video.

“The Death of Gerald Penny,” an excerpt from Eye, Mind, Heart

by Nancy Pick ’83

His new friends called him Penny. He would be remembered, from his one week at Amherst, for a corny line he’d never have the chance to outgrow: “Hi, I’m Penny, but you can call me nickel, dime or quarter — I respond to any denomination.” 7

In 1973 Gerald Gilbert Anthony Penny [AC 1977] had an unusual profile for an Amherst freshman, as an African American from New Orleans. At his exclusive all-Black Catholic high school, St. Augustine, he had played basketball, served on the student council and graduated salutatorian. 8 But in his very first week at Amherst, he would have to pass a long-standing test: swimming. The Physical Education department required every student either to swim four lengths — 100 yards — of Pratt Pool without stopping or else take a remedial class. 9 Anyone who did not take the test received a note threatening “a FAIL.” Penny had never learned to swim. Historically, few Black residents of the South were taught how, mainly because segregation had limited their access to public pools and beaches.

On September 11, the night before the test, Penny told friends he was anxious. But when he got to the pool, facing pressure to conform at his nearly all-white school, he did not dare to say “I can’t swim.” In the deep end he sank to the bottom and remained under nine feet of water for as long as eight minutes. Finally the lifeguard pulled Penny to the surface. He and emergency workers tried to resuscitate him. They kept trying for 35 minutes, and then they gave up. Someone had to call his father, Austin Penny Sr., who worked in New Orleans as a mail carrier.

A year later, in 1974, the Afro-American Society named its meeting place in the Octagon the Gerald Penny Black Culture Center. For the memorial plaque, they turned to Penny’s father. In the months after the drowning, Amherst President John William Ward had come to know and admire Austin Penny Sr., writing to him: “I hope if tragedy ever touches my life that I may have the dignity and courage you have shown me.” 10

The father’s inscription states:

He was fiercely proud and extremely dedicated to his race and to the betterment of racial relations. [. . .] Since our son cannot be restored to us, it is comforting that his memory will be cherished by those who so briefly knew him, and by those many fine students who will attend Amherst in the years ahead.

After the death of Gerald Penny, Amherst College never again required a swimming test.

Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez, professor of Black Studies at Amherst from 1973 to 1975, recalled hearing a knock on her door. Two distraught students told her that Gerald Penny had drowned. That night she met with a group of students, comforting them, talking to them about death. “I didn’t get home,” she said, “until four in the morning.” 11 Several years later Sanchez published “A Poem of Praise,” 12 dedicated to Gerald Penny and the Brothers of Amherst College [the full poem is reproduced below].

A Poem of Praise

by Sonia Sanchez

(for Gerald Penny who died September, 1973, Amherst       
and for the Brothers of Amherst College)

is an alien in this world         
in spite of all the pleasures.

Man is an early traveller          
who tastes in himself         
the world.

When you wake up in the morning—Man,          
meditate on your beginning         
meditate as you flow in         
the waters of your birth         
meditate on the nine months         
you rest unseen         
and the world awaits you         
when you come soiled and crying.          
And they pick you up         
like one small melon          
and hush up          
your crying.

At first you do not speak         
and your legs are like orphans          
at first your two eyes cross          
themselves in confusion         
at first your mouth knows only         
the full breasts of milk         
a sweet taste of this world.

There is nothing which does not come to an end          
And to live one year is good in the sight of God

You are born         
worthy of praise         
all things that HE         
makes are worthy of praise.

In your days made up of dreams          
in your eyes made of dawn         
you walked toward old age,          
child of the rainbow         
child of beauty         
through the broad fields         
and your eyes gained power         
and your limbs grew long like yellow corn          
an abundance of life         
an abundance of joy         
with beauty before you, you walked          
toward old age.

There is nothing which does not come to an end          
And to live seven years is good in the sight of God.

Silently to life you spoke         
young male child.

You praised life         
coming as a river between hills 
and your laughter         
was like red berries in summer         
and your shouting like giant eagles

As you walked toward old age          
young male child         
your voice harnessed the wind

There is nothing which does not come to an end         
And to live fourteen years is good in the sight of God.

behold me         
in a sacred manner.

behold me         
in a sacred manner.

My family sitting holy          
behold me         
in a sacred manner.

For i am man         
and i must         
run with the evening tide          
must hold up my hands          
for my life is opening          
before me.

I am going to walk far to the East          
i hope to find a good morning          

I am going to race my own voice          
i hope to have peace         

Father. Mother.      
behold me Now.         
I have moved to a          
House of Darkness         
but your memories of me          
light my way.

I do not cry          
for i am man         
no longer         
a child of your          

There is nothing which does not 
      come to an end         
And to live seventeen years is good 
      in the sight of God.

Copyright ©1979 by Sonia Sanchez

Eye, Mind, Heart Notes

  1. “Freshman Drowns,” Student, Sept. 13, 1973, 1.
  2. Mark London [AC 1974] and Andrew Marks [AC 1976], “The Penny Case: The Background of a College Tragedy,” Student, Sept. 17, 1973, 5.
  3. Through the 1960s, passing the swimming test was actually required for graduation.
  4. Kim Townsend, John William Ward: An American Idealist (Amherst: Amherst College, 2014), 152.
  5. Author interview with Sonia Sanchez, April 14, 2017, following Amherst Cinema screening of the documentary about her, BaddDDD.
  6. Sonia Sanchez, “A Poem of Praise,” Callaloo, No. 5 (Feb. 1979): 21 – 23.