By Phil Smith
Since 1968, Williamstown has been the home of the Greylock ABC (A Better Chance), a residential high school program that prepares academically talented and highly motivated African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American students from educationally underserved school districts for college and future leadership roles. This program has been one of the town’s major efforts to connect with the broader national community in a joint enterprise involving town residents and Williams College. Now that the question of continuing the Greylock ABC is under scrutiny by community organizers and present and past administrators, a reappraisal of how it has contributed to the life of Williamstown naturally includes a closer look at its history.
The national ABC program, which last year marked its 50th anniversary, emerged out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, when 23 headmasters of independent schools made a commitment to broaden their enrollment to include students of color who could not afford private school educations but who showed motivation and promise academically. Williamstown started its own Greylock ABC program early in this process, in 1968, founded by members of the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, including Bruce Grinnell, Lauren Stevens, and Phil Smith, former Director of Admission at Williams College. For its 45 years of operation in Williamstown, Greylock ABC scholars attended Mount Greylock Regional High School, benefitting from a network of local college and community tutors, mentors, counselors and host families. A full-time residential director and assistant director lived with the students in the ABC House on Hoxsey Street.
Phil Smith, in 2008, wrote an anecdotal history of the founding of the program that shows the concerted and cooperative efforts made by a wide range of community representatives. The ABC program originated in 1964 at Dartmouth College, when Charles Dey, Associate Dean and head of the Tucker Foundation, worked with heads of Andover and Northfield Mt. Hermon to provide scholarships to qualified low income students. “Doc” Dey traveled to the South and began a network of school administrators and teachers who agreed to recommend top students for attending a good boarding school. He obtained a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to provide an eight-week academic summer program at Dartmouth, concentrating on English, math and writing, for these students, who, upon successful completion, would be recommended for acceptance at the proposed boarding schools. Out of these efforts grew more summer program sites, beginning in 1966, when there was a lot of Great Society money around and Sargent Shriver, President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity Director, agreed to more than triple the ABC funding from government funds.
For the summers of 1966-1968, Phil ran the summer ABC at the Darrow School and then at Williams. He comments, “I had to work hard to get two African-American students to agree to be summer tutors—there were only about a dozen African-American students at Williams at the time.” Eventually 10% of the 60 Darrow students who went through the program attended Williams, and two sent their children to Williams. The other two summer ABC programs at that time were at Carleton and Duke, which were closed in 1967 because funding had dried up. Phil explains that the funding expectation for the colleges was that they would raise at least 15% of the total cost of the summer programs and he “lucked” into the Cameron Baird Foundation in Buffalo, which has been supporting ABC ever since.
In 1968, ABC came to Williamstown when John Joline, headmaster of Darrow School in New Lebanon, proposed that Williams College run the program he had set up at Darrow. Phil remembers that at the Williams meeting where the proposal was accepted by a tie vote, those present, besides himself as Admissions Director, included John Chandler, Dean of the Faculty, and Mac Brown, Political Science professor. “I was told, ‘If you want to do it, OK’, the implication being ‘you’re on your own.’”
From that initial establishment of ABC under Williams College sponsorship, the program took off. Again, under Doc Dey’s initiative, to expand the opportunities for ABC students, public high school programs were started and Phil was asked to be on the high school ABC board, which prompted him to establish a public school program in 1968 in Williamstown, at Mt. Greylock High School, starting small, with only two students. Over the next years, as the program grew, Phil coordinated cooperation from the Mt. Greylock school committee and administrators, the Congregational Church and others in town, Williams College, the Rotary Club and other civic organizations, volunteer host families for these students, and the complications in establishing a residential ABC house on Hoxsey Street, which required finding resident directors and tutors, and cooperation and support from the local neighborhood.
Phil remembers that funding was always tight. The plant sale that he ran for 30 years came about as a necessary fundraiser. The first year they made about $l87; their best year was over $7,000. The idea of ABC room service was an early good fundraiser. “And then the king of them all—the ABC clothing sale—has added stability ever since its inception.”