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 college application essay to Amherst.
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, a commemoration of Penny’s life was held in the Gerald Penny ’77 Black Cultural Center at The Octagon. There, the audience of 60 or so 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 as she stood in front of the Octagon Mural where she and other Black members of the Amherst community appear. “It is important to give proper honor to such a human being,” said Boykin-East, “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, a mail carrier, later demanded that the swim test be eliminated. It was.
At the ceremony, the audience heard from those who knew Penny, including his classmates Bob Bellinger ’77 and Lamar Albritton ’77; his dorm adviser, Richard Ammons ’74; and Tom Wattley ’75, Penny’s 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.” Ammons attended Penny’s funeral and the wake held at St. Augustine High School. “The place was packed,” he said. “You got the sense that Gerald was the hope of a community.”
President Michael A. Elliott 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 for the ceremony of remembrance held at Chapin Chapel on Sept. 12, 2023, to mark the date of Penny’s death.
The morning was punctuated by the crowd’s responses (“Preach!”) and appreciative snaps, plus poetry and music. The audience sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem, led by local vocalist Vanessa Ford. And they intoned together “A Poem of Praise, which the poet Sonia Sanchez dedicated to Penny, whom she had met as the Fall 1973 semester began.
Sanchez was Amherst’s first Black woman faculty member, and second chair of the Black studies department. She was called to Pratt Pool after Penny drowned, where she immediately covered his body and later phoned his mother to deliver the news of her son’s death.
Given the historical lack of access to pools and 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. 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, who quoted Penny’s essay, also read the words of a current student who recalled how he felt when he learned of the tragedy of Gerald Penny.
“I remember my heart stopping, my throat tightening, and I remember feeling scared,” wrote Jordan Trice ’24. “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.”