Why aren't there more African-Americans living in the Berkshires
The Berkshires is touted as a region of diverse arts and culture offerings. But what about the people? According to the 2012 U.S. Census, only three percent of the county’s population identify as African-American. (Another 2.1 percent identify as two or more races.) Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, a history and political-science professor at MCLA, says the low percentage boils down to jobs.
“The African American population in the Berkshires has always been small. It reached a high just after Reconstruction when ex-slaves came north to find better jobs,” she says. “[Writer and civil-rights activist W.E.B] Du Bois talks about the founding of the first black church in Great Barrington by ex-slave migrants. The earliest African-Americans in the area were akin to Du Bois’s forebears—brought as slaves to the area and then stayed to farm or set up their own family businesses. There was not much work outside of agriculture and domestic labor for blacks in the area because the mills refused to hire [them] even as late as the early 20th century.”
From the W.E.B. Du Bois Homesite to Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman’s legacy (she was a slave who filed a freedom suit in Massachusetts in 1781 and won), the community has rigorously promoted its rich African-American heritage. A reactivation of the county’s NAACP chapter has raised awareness and questions about the continuing lack of diversity, especially among city/county employees and growing tension over youth arrests involving predominantly kids of color.