Bernard A. Drew: Connections of family and place

Saturday February 16, 2013


Later this month, Arthur McFarlane II will make his first visit to Great Barrington, ancestral home of the Burghardt side of his family. His great-grandfather W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a Burghardt on his mother’s side and in early childhood lived with her, a half brother Idelbert and her parents Othello (1789-1872) and Sally Lampman Burghardt (1793-1879) on the latter’s small homestead on Route 23 west of town. Today it is a small park maintained by UMass-Amherst.

Burghardts buried in Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Cemetery include McFarlane’s great-grandmother, Nina Gomer Du Bois (1871-1950), his great-uncle, Burghardt Du Bois, and his grandmother, Yolande Du Bois Williams (1900-1961). The graves of all but the last are marked.

Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham, wrote about attending Yolande’s funeral in Great Barrington. The Springfield Republican for March 22, 1961, confirms the Rev. Frank Crook of First Congregational Church presided at the funeral, "burial was in the family plot in Mahaiwe Cemetery, and Stevens Funeral Home was in charge."

Du Bois’s mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois (1831-1885), is buried in Mahaiwe Cemetery, her grave unmarked as well. The family of W.E.B.’s generation are in a plot on the north side of the cemetery; his grandparents and others are on the south side, where it’s likely Mary was interred.


Family, and Great Barrington, were important to W.E.B. Du Bois, the internationally known educator, writer, sociologist and agitator for equal rights. He returned to Great Barrington off and on all through his life, including a troubling visit in the early 1950s when he had to sell his grandfather’s homestead -- the place he had hoped to make into a summer retreat. Friends at the NAACP had given it to him as a gift on his 60th birthday in 1928.

The Du Bois children were both born in Great Barrington. Father Du Bois, teaching at Atlanta University in 1897, was fearful of the violent racial climate there so sent his pregnant wife to Great Barrington to stay with his Uncle Jim. Burghardt was born Oct. 2. He died May 24, 1899, of diphtheria. Nina came to Great Barrington again for the birth of daughter Yolande Oct. 21, 1900. Mother and daughter returned in 1906, during the Atlanta race riots, when Yolande may have attended Bryant School. W.E.B. visited mother and daughter here.

Du Bois, a formal, at times prickly man, seems to have communicated best by letter. There are dozens of letters to Yolande in the Credo online archive at UMass. In one, sent in 1907 when Yolande was in Great Barrington, he inquired of his daughter, "How do you like sliding downhill. Pap used to slide down hills when he was a little boy and used to think that it was great fun."

In 1921, Yolande as a student at Fisk University wrote an oh-so-typical plea to her parents: "I received your letter on Friday, but waited til today to answer as I wished to enclose my bill. I just got it today and remember that this is the end of a quarter, and if it isn’t paid by March 11th I’ll be out of school..."


As years went on, Yolande went through a failed marriage, started her own family, became a school teacher, even hosted her parents in her Baltimore home for an extended time. Du Bois had a hard time expressing a compliment to her in a 1926 letter: "I was having tea with Mr. [Joel] Spingarn the other day. He said he had heard that you were ‘just the daughter that Dr. Du Bois ought to have.’ I told him he was pretty nearly right."

In a letter in 1958, aged father told daughter: "Well, I have been busy, sick, well, and moving over half the earth. I knew of course that a journey like this was a risk at my age, but after all at 90 anything is a risk and I decided that just to sit home and wait for death was no greater risk than traveling among friends and well-wishers." He admitted his activities had come to dominate his life, even as he was 90 years old. He ended, "Greet Arthur the husband and to you all my love!"

Arthur McFarlane will deliver the 19th annual Du Bois Lecture at UMass on Feb. 26 then the next day he will come to Great Barrington where Randy F. Weinstein of the Du Bois Center, Professor Frances Jones-Sneed of Mass College of Liberal Arts, author Scott Christianson and others will show him highlights of the town. From 6 to 7:45 p. m. the evening of Feb. 27, he will speak at First Congregational Church (very appropriate, as his great-great-grandmother was a member). The public is invited.

McFarlane was born in Harlem, the son of Du Bois Williams and Arthur E. McFarlane. He was educated at the State University of New York at Brockport and the University of Colorado at Boulder and for the last quarter century has been a statistical analyst and manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and environment. This, as I understand, is his first venture to New England. Come say hello.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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