Professor Robert H. Romer and Alyssia Bailey and family.
With Professor Robert H. Romer ’52, Alyssia Bailey and family explored her local roots. Photo by Carol Lollis

Growing up in a large adoptive family full of multiracial children like herself, Alyssia Bailey did not wonder much about her original family. “Then I got into my 30s,” she says, “and I suddenly wanted to know.”

While combing through online genealogical records, Bailey uncovered the surname of some of her maternal ancestors: Newport. When she located and had dinner with her birth mother, she asked about the name. “I did see that there was a Newport House at Amherst, but when I asked [my birth mother] about it, she acted like she didn’t know anything,” Bailey says. “So I felt like I must just have the wrong people.”

Later, though, the births of her own two children intensified Bailey’s curiosity about that side—the African-American side—of her lineage. “I went and Googled this name, Frederick Dwight Newport,” she says, and up popped a 2010 Amherst magazine article by Robert H. Romer ’52, professor emeritus of physics, on “The Untold Story of Newport House.”

Professor Robert H. Romer and Alyssia Bailey
Professor Robert H. Romer ’52 and Alyssia Bailey. Photo by Carol Lollis

As the article explained, Amherst renamed the former fraternity house in 1984 in honor of Frederick Dwight “Doc” Newport and his son Edward Foster Newport, beloved athletic trainers who worked at the College from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. (They were also founding members of the Town of Amherst’s Hope Community Church.)

Those men, Romer wrote, were directly descended from Amos Newport, who was “born in Africa about 1715, captured as a boy and taken to America on a slave ship.” Sold in 1729 to Joseph Billing of Hatfield, Mass., Amos Newport sued for his freedom in 1766; the suit was unsuccessful but “probably contributed in some small way to the gradual ending of slavery in Massachusetts.”

Newport House
The former Phi Delta Sigma house was renamed in 1984 for two descendents of Amos Newport. Enslaved in Hatfield, Mass., Newport sued for his freedom. Photo by Henry Amistadi

This article led Bailey to Romer’s 2009 book, Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, and to further Newport family research by Eric W. Weber ’70. Bailey decided to email Romer.

“I didn’t think he’d respond!” she laughs. In fact, they traded information over the next 15 months, and, with help from Weber, confifi rmed that Bailey is indeed a direct descendant of the Amherstarea Newports.

Romer describes their correspondence as “the kind of event that authors like me dream about!”

On Feb. 5, Bailey—who lives near Atlanta—traveled to Western Massachusetts with her adoptive sister and niece. She met Romer and Weber in person for the first time, and they toured the Hatfield home where Amos Newport had been a slave. Then they attended a packed reception at Newport House, where photos and articles about the Newports were on display and Bailey met other Newport descendants. Romer spoke about Amos’s legacy, and Resident Counselor Caryce Tirop ’17 presented Bailey with a copy of the professor’s book inscribed by students currently living in the house.

Bailey says she now feels a deep connection to Romer, to Amherst College and to American history. She’s pleased to know that her family springs from “people who fought back” against slavery.

“Look at these people that were able to survive this and thrive,” she says. “For my kids, I’m very proud that I’ll be able to tell them who they are, what they come from.”