Tuesday January 22, 2013

Black History Month has gotten a head start this week with the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the second inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, both occurring on Monday.

Locally, the spirit of unity, brotherhood and leadership was honored through community service projects at multiple sites in northern Berkshire County, and a youth-oriented celebration at the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, featuring youth speakers from Railroad Street Youth Project, Multicultural BRIDGE Youth Corps and Greenagers.

Throughout the rest of this month and February, the official Black History Month, there are a number of ways to learn locally about past history, as well as experience contemporary culture. Here are a some highlights, many which are free and open to the public:

Historic sites

Berkshire County has a number of historic sites people can visit to learn about black history and notable African-Americans.

The Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail is an effort chaired by two Berkshire County women, Frances Jones-Sneed, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and Rachel Fletcher, trustee to the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area.

The trail itself features 48 sites across 29 Massachusetts and Connecticut towns, which have served as homes and muses to African-Americans who played pivotal roles in national and international events, as well as every day life.

To the north, there are places like the childhood home of Hall of Fame baseball player Frank Grant, who played for the Buffalo Bisons. Pittsfield is home to several sites associated with the Rev. Samuel Harrison, first pastor of the Second Congregational Church, and abolitionist noted for his work as chaplain of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He and his wife are buried in Pittsfield Cemetery.

To the south, there are also a number of sites in Sheffield, Stockbridge and Great Barrington that tell the story of Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman. Once enslaved in the Sheffield home of Col. John Ashley, she was one of the first slaves in Massachusetts to file a successful suit for constitutional freedom. Learn more about the trail at www.uhvafam
trail.org or call (413) 528-3391.

New history

One of Mum Bett’s great-grandchildren also had a very notable presence in the Berkshires -- civil rights pioneer, author and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. His home site is also featured on the African American Heritage Trail and his life is still being unfolded through the work of the Du Bois Center in Great Barrington. From February through April, the center will host a series of special events called "Du Bois at 50: A Hometown Retrospective," which will include new research and discussions from Du Bois direct descendants, as well as lectures on local black history. For more information, visit www.duboiscentergb.org or call (413) 644-9595.

Contemporary culture

There are several other events coming up that will give a nod to African-Americans and their contributions to the arts and culture.

The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts will host its eighth annual Blues & Funk Festival on Feb. 1 and 2, which is co-presented by MCLA’s Black Student Union, MCLA Multicultural Center and New England Newspapers Inc.

The first night will kick off with R &B/hip-hop artist Maya Azucena. The award-winning MCLA step team, NEXXUS, will open the show. Khris Royal and Dark Matters will headline the second night, with local blues group Arthur Holmes Band to warm up the crowd. Call (413) 664-8718 or visit www.mcla.edu/presents for details.

Black History Month events will continue to be featured on the Learning page throughout February. Submit your Black History Month event to jsmith@berkshireeagle.com.