A painting of a Black man surrounded by colorful geometric shapes

Portrait unveiled at the 1974 dedication of the Gerald Penny ’77 Black Cultural Center

A woman holding a program

The program from the event

Gerald Penny ’77 came up in New Orleans and, as was his birthright, cited a lyric from his hometown’s most essential song, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” in his Amherst application essay.

When change came to his Black community, Penny wrote, “I want to be in that number.”

On Sunday morning of Black Alumni Weekend and homecoming this year, an audience of about 60 took part in a commemoration of Penny’s life, held in the Octagon’s Gerald Penny ’77 Black Cultural Center. There, the group heard more from that essay, written by Penny when he was a senior at the prestigious, all-male, all-Black St. Augustine High School, where he was salutatorian of his class.

“I see so many wrongs in this society,” wrote Penny back then. “I feel it necessary to attempt to rectify the situation.” 

Senior Associate Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East featured Penny’s words in her remarks. “It is important to give proper honor to such a human being,” she said, “and to remember a horrific tragedy that happened 50 years ago.”

On Sept. 12, 1973, Penny drowned in Pratt Pool during a mandatory swim test for new students. His father later demanded that the swim test be eliminated, The New York Times reported. It was.

The audience heard from those who knew Penny, including Bob Bellinger ’77 and Lamar Albritton ’77; Penny’s dorm adviser, Richard Ammons ’74; and Tom Wattley ’75, his mentor from the admission office, who accompanied Austin Penny Sr. to an Amherst funeral home to view his son’s body. 

Ammons recalled meeting Penny and his family on move-in day in 1973. “His brother turned to me and said, ‘What can he expect?’ That lives with me,” said Ammons, who attended Penny’s funeral and wake at St. Augustine. “The place was packed. You got the sense that Gerald was the hope of a community.” 

President Michael A. Elliott ’92 and Sheree M. Ohen, chief equity and inclusion officer, also spoke. “Nothing will ever fully absolve Amherst College from its responsibility for Gerald Penny’s death,” said Elliott. “But we can continue to learn from this painful loss and ask questions now, both of the past and the present with an eye to the future.” 

Penny had come to Amherst in part because Black students “warmly described a vibrant community of Black students eager for him to join them, a home away from home,” Elliott said. “The life he should have had, the joy of fellowship and growth that Amherst promised him—I want to commit today to being that home for one another in Gerald Penny’s honor.” 

Stefan Bradley, the Charles Hamilton Houston 1915 Professor of Black Studies and History, presided at that day’s event, as he did at a ceremony in Chapin Chapel on Sept. 12, 2023, the anniversary of Penny’s death.

In the Octagon, the audience sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and together read “A Poem of Praise,” by Sonia Sanchez, who wrote it in the 1970s for Penny, whom she had met as the fall 1973 semester began. Sanchez was Amherst’s first Black woman faculty member and the second chair of Black studies. She has remembered being called to Pratt Pool after Penny drowned, immediately covering his body and, later, phoning his mother to deliver the news of his death. 

A group of Back men standing on a stage in front of an Amherst College podium

Thomas J. Wattley ’75, Lamar Albritton ’77, Bob Bellinger ’77, Dr. Loris Rayner ’76 and Richard Ammons ’74

Given the historical lack of access to pools, beaches and swimming instruction within the Black community, several spoke of how Penny’s story had affected the way they think of being in the water. Dr. Loris Rayner ’76, a pediatrician, said that when he counsels his patients about swimming safety, “I always talk about Gerald Penny.”

Jeanine Friedman ’82 is part of Team Dream, a  Chicago-based organization that teaches swimming to women of color. “When I’m diving in, I’m thinking this is a privilege, that I have someone who greets me with towels and says, ‘Your lane is ready, Mrs. Friedman,’” she said, “and I think about Gerald Penny.”

Boykin-East read words from Jordan Trice ’24, who described how he felt when he learned about Penny’s death: “I remember my heart stopping, my throat tightening, and I remember feeling scared. How scared he must have been when he was standing on the edge of Pratt Pool and being told to get in.” 

Trice added: “Amherst has certainly changed since the fall day in 1973 when Gerald’s senseless death occurred. The College’s commitment to diversity has brought in students who have forced it to change, who have raised their voices continuously. We need to care for each other the way Sonia Sanchez cared for Gerald Penny those years ago.” 

Portrait: William Utermohlen; Photos: Jesse Gwilliam