A dorm named for descendants of a slave who sued for his freedom

By Robert H. Romer ’52

Zion Chapel was built in 1869 on land provided by Amherst College on the site where Newport House now stands "so that the colored people of the town will have a place to worship." In the early 1900s the congregation of Zion Chapel divided, some members moving down Woodside Avenue to form the A.M.E. Zion Church, others moving to Gaylord Street, where they built Hope Congregational (now Hope Community) Church. Both Dwight and Edward Newport were founding members of Hope Church.

Those who pass Newport House, a 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 and taken to America on a slave ship. He 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 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. The owner produced a bill of sale, properly executed and witnessed: “I David Ingersoll ... have sold & delivered a certain young Negro Boy ... for fifty pounds to Joseph Billing of Hatfield ... .” The jury had no choice but to conclude that Amos was indeed a slave belonging to Joseph Billing. Amos, not easily deterred, appealed to the highest court in the province, which 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 ... .” Amos never did become free, but filing those two court cases probably contributed in some small way to the gradual ending of slavery in Massachusetts during the last two decades of the 1700s.

Amos’s son did become free, and by the mid-1800s there were Newports living in Amherst. (Of all the slaves who lived in this valley in the 1700s, very few had surnames—almost always simply names assigned by the owner, such as Caesar or Jenny or Pompey. If not for the fact that Amos, even as a slave, had a surname, it would be nearly impossible to trace his descendants.) Amos’s great-great-grandson, F. Dwight Newport, was an athletic trainer and boxing instructor at Amherst, 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 (later Phi Delta Sigma) fraternity. In 1984 Amherst abolished fraternities and named the old houses, now dormitories, in honor of people who had been associated with the college and with that fraternity. And thus the dormitory was named Newport House, in honor of those two men.

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, R.I., and that was how he acquired his surname, but I have found no 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 e-mail—further generations of Newports. And a year ago a fifth-grader in California wrote a school report about her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Amos, using my book as a source.

Next time you approach the traffic light by College Hall as you drive into Amherst from Northampton, look to your right at Newport House and think about Amos Newport, who lived a life of consequence in this valley 250 years ago.  

Photo courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections