Western MA town makes peace with a native son
GREAT BARRINGTON, Massachusetts — He’s the most famous son of this quiet mountain hamlet in Western Massachusetts. But until recently, people looking for signs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ life and legacy in Great Barrington would have had a hard time finding them.
For decades since Du Bois’ death in Ghana in 1963, the civil rights activist and scholar has drawn praise for his writings but scorn from residents upset that he joined the Communist Party, became a citizen of Ghana and often criticized the U.S. over race relations.
FBI agents and riot police guarded a park dedication to him more than 40 years ago. Efforts to name a school after him were blocked. Some residents saw him as the father figure of black radicalism, and they remained conflicted over his legacy and his relationship with the largely white town he often romanticized in his writings.
But now, as Great Barrington readies to celebrate its 250th birthday, supporters say Du Bois is finally getting his due.
His image will be featured in many of the town’s birthday events, a portion of the River Walk has been named in his honor, and the University of Massachusetts is embarking on a major restoration project of his boyhood homesite. In each case, the recent Du Bois honors came with no resistance.
Supporters says these new efforts, pushed by a coalition of black and white residents, are signs that the town is finally at peace with Du Bois.
“It’s amazing what time will heal,” said Rachel Fletcher, founder of the Great Barrington River Walk. “Many of those people don’t even remember why they were even upset.”
In the past five years, a new Du Bois Center has opened next to his wife’s burial site, and officials posted signs at the town entrance advertising it as his birthplace. Another visitor center with a gift shop is planned for downtown, and organizers are putting the finishing touches on a self-guided tour.
“He’s everywhere in Great Barrington,” said David Levinson, a cultural anthropologist and editor of “African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley.” “I’m kind of comfortable where things are now. The resistance is not there anymore.”
Born in 1868, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. He was a polarizing figure acclaimed for his commitment to civil rights and racial equality and maligned for joining the Communist Party late in life.
He wrote more than 4,000 articles, essays and books, many of which are now out of print or difficult to find. He also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a leading civil rights advocacy group, and remained an outspoken critic against racial discrimination throughout his life.
Many of Du Bois’ writings and ideas continue to influence contemporary policy and thinkers. In the early 1900s, he posited that crime by blacks declined as they gained equality. And he described a “Talented Tenth” of the African American population that would rescue the race from its problems.
Shortly after his death, when supporters dedicated a Great Barrington park in his honor, a controversy erupted that drew actors, activists and elected officials from around the country. Federal authorities were called over concerns that the dedication would lead to violence, though it remained peaceful.
Since then, residents conflicted over Du Bois’ writings and views resisted almost all Du Bois-related events or projects.
For example, in 2004, Stephen Bannon, chairman of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, helped block efforts to name a school after Du Bois. At the time, Bannon said Du Bois’ embrace of radical politics played a role in that decision.
But these days, Bannon said, he believes that those are just “minor parts” of Du Bois’ past and that most residents have no problem honoring him as an important part of the town’s history.
“He’s part of the community,” Bannon said. “People accept him as someone who lived here and made major contributions.”
Views of Du Bois in the town have evolved from that of a radical black scholar to someone who wrote about all sorts of social justice issues, Fletcher said. A garden by the River Walk where Du Bois spent his childhood was named after him to honor his call for environmental stewardship, Fletcher said.
Randy Weinstein, director of the 5-year-old Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, said most of the residents who fought efforts to honor him have either died or softened their views.
Weinstein said his nonprofit center draws lectures, films and panel discussions on Du Bois with few — if any — complaints.
“In the past, every time Du Bois was on the front page of the Berkshire Eagle, it was because of a controversy,” Weinstein said. “Now, it’s because of some new dedication or honor, and no one bats an eye. We’re like, ‘Sure. What else is new?’ I think that’s great.”