Civic group aims high for celebration of Du Bois’ 150th birthday

By Andrew D. Blechman Friday, May 5

Andrew Blechman

A group of civic leaders and educators met at the Great Barrington Town Hall to plan a townwide celebration for the 150th birthday of civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, born in Great Barrington on February 23, 1868. From left, Zufan Bazzano, Dennis Powell, Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, Gwendolyn VanSant, Dr. Stephen Sneed, Eugenie Sills, Ben Dorn, Marianne Young, and Richard Stanley.

Great Barrington — A wide-ranging group of volunteers met in Town Hall this past weekend to discuss a blowout celebration for the 150th birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, the civil rights pioneer and Great Barrington native.

The committee is looking to aim high. Among the considerations was the possibility of inviting Michelle and Barack Obama to speak. Other suggestions included a life-size statue of Du Bois placed on Town Hall property, designating his birthday, Feb. 23, “Du Bois Day”, and choosing one of his books for an all-town or all-county read.

More than 30 people attended the meeting, including State Rep. William Smitty Pignatelli, a member of the UMASS W.E.B Du Bois Center executive committee, representatives of the Railroad Street Youth Project, local businesses, civic groups, Selectman Ed Abrahams and Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin. The meeting was organized by Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant of Multicultural Bridge, and Randy Weinstein, founder and director of the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington.

Taking part in the discussion of the W.E.B. Du Bois celebration were, from left, state Rep. William ‘Smitty’ Pignatelli, Samuel VanSant, Dr. Tasha Alston, Randy, Michael Wise, and Richard Stanley. Photo: Andrew Blechman

Although Du Bois is considered a key figure in the American pantheon of great thinkers and writers, his hometown of Great Barrington has had an uneasy relationship with his legacy since his death in 1963 at the age of 95 in Ghana. Much of the hesitation appears to have been related to Du Bois’ politics, which were socialist for much of his life. Following his harassment by the FBI during the McCarthy Era, Du Bois claimed late in life to be a communist, but much of his political affiliations need to be seen in the context of the times as well as the Civil Rights Struggle, which he witnessed since just after the end of the Civil War.

Not in dispute are Du Bois’ accomplishments — among others, he was the first African American to earn a PhD at Harvard, and he helped found the NAACP — his importance in American history and literature, and his deep and lasting connection to his birthplace of Great Barrington, of which he always spoke fondly.

“We have a responsibility to do this,” said Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, emphasizing that Du Bois’ birthday is a perfect opportunity to bring people together to celebrate Great Barrington.

“In the end, it is all about home,” Weinstein asserted during his opening remarks at the brainstorming session. “Du Bois was born here. Educated here. He worked at Searles Castle. Our town raised the funds to send Du Bois to college. He owned property here. Paid taxes here. Du Bois buried his family here. And he wrote glowingly about Great Barrington in his autobiographies and correspondences. Du Bois continues to attract visitors from all over the world to his hometown.”

The $5 BerkShare note carries the photo of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Many participants were motivated not just by their admiration for Du Bois, but the seeming indifference locally to his legacy in recent decades. “I’m surprised and saddened to meet so many youth here who don’t realize our connection to Du Bois,” said Ari Cameron, of the RSYP. The organization plans to create a new Du Bois mural this summer along the side of Carr Hardware in the Triplex parking lot.

“We need to remember Du Bois not just for our black youth, but also for our white youth,” said Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire Branch of the NAACP. “The schools don’t explain how black people have helped develop our country.”

“We’re bringing Du Bois into the curriculum,” said Ben Dorn, principal of Monument Valley Regional Middle School. “But it’s not enough, not as much as I think we should be doing. We are a school system with an historic American figure who should be celebrated as one of our own.”

The group is looking to celebrate Du Bois for the month of February next year, culminating with his actual birthday on Feb. 23. In addition to festivities, there will likely be a strong emphasis on discussing Du Bois’ writings, his legacy, and understanding how one of America’s most famous African Americans emerged from an overwhelmingly white rural Berkshire community, a community that overwhelmingly embraced him and treated him with respect, a community that he loved and reminisced about until his death nearly 60 years ago.