When Judge Charles Forbes wrote the will, dated September 5, 1876, that resulted in the creation of Forbes Library, he included something generous about what he wished for people who use the library. He continued, within the same paragraph, by writing something small-minded. In reflecting on the 125th anniversary of the library, I would like to consider that paragraph in the context of Northampton history and the library I know today.

I was Writer-in-Residence at Forbes from 2010 to 2015. I love the library that Judge Forbes made. Why would I want to dwell on something unpleasant in the will that has generated so much good? It’s because I believe that the more honest, complex, and nuanced the stories we tell ourselves about the past are, the more room there is for honesty, complexity, and nuance in the present. We need those things as readers, writers, dreamers, and neighbors.

Here’s the moving thing Judge Forbes wrote in this paragraph:

It has been my aim to place within reach of the Inhabitants of a town, in which I have lived long and pleasantly, the means of learning, if they are disposed to learn, the marvellous development of modern thought, and to enable them to judge of the destiny of the race on scientific evidence, rather than on metaphysical evidence alone. The importance of education of the people cannot be overrated.

It’s powerful to imagine Judge Forbes honoring his pleasant life in Northampton by making books more readily available to people who live here. I pause over the word “race,” but it is easy (if ahistorical) to read that as “the human race,” as all of us. I am grateful that he committed his wealth toward this effort. However, the feeling of appreciation is disrupted as the paragraph continues.

It [education] will be found the most efficient if not the only protection against the inroads of a foreign superstition, whose swarms of priests, Jesuits, monks, ministers and agents are let loose upon us, and engaged in the unholy work of enslaving the minds of the multitude, and moulding them into instruments of priestly power.

The paragraph goes on in this vein for another hundred words. Judge Forbes explicitly refers to to Catholicism. It is not hard to see that he was biased against the Catholic church. In the context of the nineteenth century, those sentiments were also anti-immigrant.

Forbes Library is where I learned that the first Catholic mass in Northampton occurred in 1806, when a priest came from Boston at the request of Dominic Daley and James Halligan, two Irish Catholic travelers who were accused of murder and executed without proper due process. They were exonerated in 1984. When Michael White, who wrote a novel about the case, spoke at Forbes in 2012, he said that a previous director of the library had helped him greatly with his research.

According to history on the website of Saint Elizabeth Seton Parish, St. Mary of the Assumption was assigned a priest to serve as its first resident pastor in 1866, ten years before Judge Forbes wrote his will. The property on Elm Street where St. Mary of the Assumption Church was later built was purchased in 1873. By 1904, there were five Catholic parishes in Northampton and Florence, including one for French-speaking parishioners, and one for Polish speakers. Judge Forbes was resisting changes in the town’s population that were already under way.

The library is now place of welcome, warmth, and information for newcomers to the city, including immigrants. Before I was involved with programs at the library, I was a volunteer tutor there for a new resident from Sierra Leone. He got a library card, and was excited to learn that he could check out African music. Another year, I attended a soccer tournament that Forbes Director Lisa Downing, then the library’s assistant director, had organized with community partners in connection with a book in the All Hamptons Read series. The library gave away books in English and Spanish to children at the games.

The lawn at Forbes was the first place I saw a multi-lingual yard sign welcoming immigrants. In English, it read, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” I know the staff of Forbes Library mean that and work hard to show it. Maybe the gift of creating the library has led to things that Judge Forbes would not have expected or embraced, but it is his gift that makes them possible.

Susan Stinson