Du Bois legacy celebrated on 50th anniversary of his death


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Future generations will know civil rights champion W.E.B. Du Bois better than ever, if representatives from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have their way, they announced Saturday on the 50th anniversary of Du Bois' passing.

In 1973, UMass-Amherst purchased Du Bois' writing collection. University officials at First Congregational Church said that nearly 100,000 documents -- including photos, letters, and essays -- will soon all be cataloged online by the university.

There are also other university-led efforts to expand knowledge about Du Bois. Anthropologists from the university are exploring Du Bois' former home site to better understand his early work, and there are efforts to broaden the story of his life beyond the man and expand it to the town he was raised in, Great Barrington.

"The legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois is not as known, appreciated and respected as much as it should be," said the event's keynote speaker, Dr. Amilcar Shabazz, a professor of Afro-American studies at UMass-Amherst. "The building up of that legacy throughout the world should begin at home."

Du Bois was honored during a ceremony in Great Barrington that included readings of his work, tours of his former home site, and talks from UMass professors praising him for his contributions to society. Du Bois was raised in Great Barrington and died on Aug. 27, 1963. He is recognized as a scholar, essayist, activist and civil rights champion.

Du Bois was born and raised in Great Barrington, attended college at 17, and then within a year was teaching public education in Tennessee, according to Shabazz. His teaching experience served as a defining moment as he saw discrimination firsthand.

Du Bois would go on to become the first African-American to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University. He would go on to be a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the height of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, he was falsely accused of being an agent of a foreign power, and later exonerated.

"There are two places, and only two places, where land was set aside to honor Dr. Du Bois. One of them is Great Barrington," said Robert Paynter, a UMass-Amherst professor of anthropology. "There should be more."

In the coming months, there will be signage placed at Du Bois Great Barrington home site. These signs will describe his work as a scholar, political activist, and why Du Bois is important.

"One of our tasks is to take this man who lived 95 very, very active years and condense those 95 years down to 750 words," David Glassberg, UMass-Amherst professor of history said. "It's a challenge."

Paynter also said that anthropology work on Du Bois' former homesite reveals he only lived on a small portion of the 5-acre plot. He likely went to a South Egremont farm, which would later influence his work. There are also plans to erect markers around the four corners of his house to provide visitors a better understanding of where he lived.

"That's what shapes your memory, your personality," Paynter said. "That home site is what's captured in his art throughout his life."

Executive Director LaJuana Hood, of the Pan-African Historical Museum housed in Springfield, said Du Bois is a positive role model to all races.

"He was an African-American male that absolutely took advantage of the education system and going on to the zenith," she said. "You can't just classify him in African-American history, you have to put him in world history. He was not held back by color, even though some tried. He was determined to be the best he could be and leave a legacy for others."

To reach John Sakata:
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