Benard A. Drew | Our Berkshires: W.E.B. Du Bois' roots as a teenager reporter

Our Berkshires

Posted Friday, January 26, 2018 2:15 pm

By Bernard A. Drew

GREAT BARRINGTON — An ambitious mix of programs in Great Barrington celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of noted social justice activist W.E.B. Du Bois. Hats off to Randy Weinstein, Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant and others for the array of perspectives on the town native's life.

You can glimpse the bedrock of Du Bois's investigative prowess as a sociologist and his assertiveness and solid voice as a journalist from his two years as a newspaper reporter, albeit one relegated largely to accumulating social notes.

"About 1882 when I was a school boy in Massachusetts I became local correspondent for the New York Globe which was the first colored paper that I had ever seen," Du Bois wrote in 1942. "I used to sell about ten copies to the small group of colored people in my home, Great Barrington, and wrote from time to time little news notes which [Editor] T. Thomas Fortune published to my intense gratification and delight."

Wrote for Republican

For the Freeman's Dec. 27, 1884, issue, for example, he wrote: "Miss Hattie Sumea of Providence, R.I., is visiting her parents. Mr. Wm. Crosley has returned from New York. While in New York he was the guest of Mr. J.C. Dennis. On Thursday, the 18th, the ladies of the A.M.E. Zion Church held a meeting at Mrs. S. Gardner's and M. Newport's, to raise money to pay for the quarterly visits of the pastor. The supper was very successful both financially and socially. Miss Hattie Sumea favored the company with a number of fine selections on the organ. Miss Sumea has a very pleasant voice and a distinct utterance."

He also wrote for the regular press. "For a few months through the goodwill of Johnnie Morgan, I rose to be local correspondent of the Springfield Republican," Du Bois recalled in "A Pageant in Seven Decades."

Du Bois may have filled a niche while the Republican found someone to replace correspondent Hiram T. Oatman. Scholar Paul G. Partington, identified two articles as for-certain written by Du Bois. The teenager wrote in September 1884, for example, about the annual agricultural show: "On the second day of the Housatonic fair, the display of horses and colts has been very creditable, many of the best horses in the southern part of the county being on the ground. Good judges estimated the crowd at 15,000. Sheffield carried off the honors in the various departments of fruits. Charles Spurr, Zacheas Candee, J.N. Warner, Dwight Andrus, Dwight Boardman and H. Clark all making fine displays of fall and winter apples, while in peaches, plums, pears and grapes R.F. Little, H.Z. Candee, Charles Spurr and Z. Candee received premiums. The potato exhibit is not up to the past, for the crop is poor in this section, but there are about a dozen varieties entered." There's a succinctness and clarity of language evident.

Another of Du Bois's reports was of a spectacular fire in July 1885: "The big barn on the farm of Harry A. Leavitt at Great Barrington, was burned last evening. The cause of the fire is unknown and is supposed to be accidental, since no motive for incendiaries can be alleged. The building was entirely destroyed. The live stock was saved, but most of the other contents, hay, grain, farming tools, machines and the like were burned. The insurance is not known. The barn was a remarkable collection of buildings, including stables, quarters for common and fancy stock, grist-mill, saw-mill and carriage houses ." That property was Brookside.

Du Bois's awareness of race grew. "Among the most encouraging signs of the advancement of the colored race here was the formation of a club for literary and social improvement to be known as the Sons of Freedom," Du Bois reported in The Freeman Feb. 6, 1884. "We call upon all members of the race who sincerely wish for its advancement to join the ranks. The next meeting will be held at the residence of Mr. Wm. Crosley on Monday evening, Dec. 9. Your correspondent very successfully discussed a turkey with Mr. Jason Cooley on Thanksgiving afternoon."

Cooley, restaurateur and handyman, was a pillar of the black community and one of the instigators of the construction of Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in town. Yes, Du Bois, 16, and Cooley, 48, talked turkey — that's the writer's trademark double meaning.

'Thrown in upon myself'

He was comfortable with his Great Barrington neighbors but felt a growing New England reticence about mingling.

"In one respect my training in this town has had rather momentous results," he wrote in "A Pageant." "It was not good form in New England or in Great Barrington to express yourself volubly, to give way to emotion — people held themselves in. They were sparing even of their greetings. There was only on the street a curt `Good morning' to those whom you knew and no greeting at all for others. The result was that because of this and probably from growing racial consciousness I was early thrown in upon myself. I found it difficult and even unnecessary to approach other people and by that same token my own inner life grew perhaps the richer. Later the habit of repression often returned to plague me, for so early a habit could not easily be unlearned.:

He became the consummate observer.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.