A concert by Common. A Ferris wheel. Fireworks. And President Martin on horseback?!
“I waited 200 years for this!” So joked Lisa Zheutlin ’22 at The Bicentennial Party on Friday. A big animated crowd of students, faculty and staff played and chatted behind her on this mild October day, the sky a keep-you-guessing blue-gray-blue, the air full of carnival and party sounds: the pop of the Balloon Bust carnival game and the whoosh of the basketball toss on the First-Year quad, the clop of horse hooves (more on that shortly) and the rising din of friends greeting friends, just emerged from cramming for midterms.
As Hiram Smith ’22 said: “It’s so good to see so many cheerful faces.”
Amherst celebrated its history at a vivid historical moment, in the second year of the pandemic. Partygoers may have been reveling in the present (especially since low rates of transmission had allowed for mask-free outdoor experiences). But visions of the past lent gravitas: archival photos had been blown up for the occasion, for instance, and strung strategically on campus.
While you ate cotton candy, you could contemplate students boxing and fencing outside Barrett gymnasium in 1860. After you rode the Ferris wheel, you could stop by a photo of the newly dedicated War Memorial of 1946. Most uncannily, there was a shot of a “Lawn Fete” from 1910, in which the early 20th century College community gathered in twilight under strings of lights—just like the early 21st century community did tonight, faces lit by neon and moonlight.
Students tried the games, sampled autumnal and carnival foods (one tent was even devoted to 1821-themed cuisine), took horse-drawn wagon rides and spontaneously sang “Happy Birthday” to Amherst when they saw a cake sculpted to look like South College, the oldest structure on campus.
But wait—there was President Biddy Martin, riding on a dappled horse past Johnson Chapel, puckishly reenacting Zephaniah Swift Moore’s infamous defection from Williams College. Several students trailed her, also on horseback, symbolically carrying books (not stolen from the Williams library!), just as 15 Williams renegade classmates did in 1821 when they followed Moore to Amherst, where he became the College’s first president. The 2021 crowd flocked to get close and laughed at the outlandishness of it all, lifting cellphones to capture the moment.
The evening crested to a performance from Common, the Grammy and Academy Award-winning rapper, who brought Joy Hall ’24 up onstage and pulled off an impressive “freestyle verse / at Amherst,” as students bobbed and danced. The night ended with a fireworks show, as the finale crackled with incandescent cascades of purple and white.
Common has us thinking in rhyme, so please check out our slide show in which you’ll spy plentiful more / Bicentennial lore.