Notes on a Native Son
Great Barrington finally embraces W.E.B. Du Bois
UMass Amherst Libraries’ Carol Connare presents a photo of the Du Bois family and an image of his birth certificate to Great Barrington.
Photo by Anastasia Stanmeyer
On a Tuesday morning this past October, a handful of people—press, local officials, educators, activists—gathered at the town hall in Great Barrington to witness the presentation of two large, framed photos. One was a blown-up copy of a birth certificate for William E. Du Bois, born in the town in 1868. The other was a stoic portrait of a nearly 30-year-old Du Bois with his toddler son, Burghardt (who died at the age of two) and his first wife, Nina.
“This may be the first time that W.E.B. has been to the town hall,” said Randy Weinstein, founder and director of the now 12-year-old Du Bois Center at Great Barrington.
The last official town “gathering” for Du Bois was nearly 14 years ago, when a few local residents proposed naming one of the then-under-construction schools (Muddy Brook Elementary) after Du Bois. The air was thick with contention, some arguing that it would be imprudent to name a school after a singular person—especially a “Communist expat,” as one person put it—while others argued that Du Bois is the most influential person ever to come out of the town.
That back and forth caught the attention of Ed Abrahams, who had just moved to town with his wife and two daughters. “I thought it was strange, and a little disturbing, that people were so against the name,” Abrahams says. “I mean, I first learned about Du Bois probably as a college student. Why wouldn’t the town want to honor its most famous citizen?”
Abrahams is now a member of the town’s selectboard and is on the committee that will honor Du Bois’s 150th birthday (February 23, 2018) in a series of events happening in January and February. In addition to the town itself, many other organizations—Multicultural Bridge, Berkshire Community College, Railroad Street Youth Project, Simon’s Rock, the Clinton Church Restoration Committee—are pulling in resources to honor a man who recalled his hometown as “a beautiful place, a little New England town nestled shyly in its valleys with something of Dutch cleanliness and English reticence.”
The change of heart surrounding Du Bois’s legacy in Great Barrington is due to several factors, according to property developer and legacy-celebration committee member Richard Stanley, not the least of which is a drastic population shift in the area over the nearly 50 years since the 1969 dedication of the Du Bois homesite, where the National Guard was on standby just in case. (That was just a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.)
“When they decided not to name the school after Du Bois, I was disappointed,” says Stanley. “It felt like a very knee-jerk, McCarthy-era attitude. People were looking at it one-dimensionally.”
The shift in attitude happened slowly, he recalls, first with the influx of second homeowners who became full-time residents and who “were willing to invest in change,” adding, “the locals became less, and the transplants became more and the population mix changed. The schools got some very forward-thinking principals, and little by little the shift happened.”
Signs went up on the town borders, proudly announcing Great Barrington as the “birthplace of W.E.B. Du Bois.” An archeologist, scholars from UMass, and others explored his boyhood homesite located on South Egremont Road, which contains foundational remnants. A park was built in his honor along the Housatonic River. A committee recently took ownership of the dilapidated church Du Bois once attended, with plans to create a community center. The local library amassed an impressive collection of his work, and area authors and activists wrote prolifically about his role in the community, dismantling one-dimensional arguments about his conversion to Communism and exodus to Ghana at the age of 93, and bringing to the surface racial undercurrents that still flow even through quiet New England communities.
These undertones are not necessarily unique to Great Barrington, according to Carol Connare, director of development and communication at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst Libraries. Connare oversees the vast archive of any and all material related to Du Bois, (There are currently 100,000 digital files in the library’s holdings.) She says that despite education and outreach efforts, there is still “a gap.”
"We give our students copies—thanks to our donors—of Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk and ask if they know who their library is named after,” she says. “Our goal is as keepers of Du Bois’s legacy and to continue our scholarship around Du Bois. We can’t assume that people know. His work has so much meaning right now, there is no better time to return to his thinking. His thinking evolved over time. People can change their minds, especially with new information. He still challenges us in that way.”
The challenge also comes with accessibility and appropriation. Berkshire County is largely and historically white—its African-American population totals around three percent. The champions of Du Bois’s legacy are, perhaps by default, largely white. That’s where Du Bois Legacy committee co-chair (with Weinstein) Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant comes in. She is the founder and executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE, which provides cultural competency training and diversity education to businesses, schools, and the community at large. Throughout the process of celebrating Du Bois, she says, “we really need to think about who is telling this story. We need to get this right.”
For updates on events connected to the Du Bois celebrations happening in Great Barrington, go to duboiscentergb.org.