Great Barrington celebrates Du Bois anniversary


GREAT BARRINGTON -- The rumors were rife on that Saturday, exactly 40 years ago, according to Elaine Gunn.

"We heard that the Black Panthers would be coming," Gunn said. "We heard that the chief of police had stored riot gear in the basement of Town Hall."

The fuss was because Gunn and several others had planned a ceremony to dedicate the homesite of civil rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois. The site, where Du Bois grew up, is located on Route 23, south of the center of town.

The Black Panthers, a revolutionary African-American group formed in the 1960s, didn't show, and the riot gear, if it was even there, was never needed. About 800 people attended the ceremony, including civil rights activist Julian Bond, who was the main speaker.

"The event went off without a hitch," said Gunn, a local retired school teacher who is also a member of the Friends of the Du Bois Homesite.

Gunn was a speaker Sunday during a 40th anniversary party at the Clinton African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The event was hosted by the Friends of the Du Bois Homesite and the University of Massachusetts, which owns the property.

A portion of Sunday's ceremony was to have taken place at the site on Route 23, but the inclement weather forced organizers to move it all to the church, where an overflow crowd of more than 100 turned out for the 21 2 hour event.

Du Bois, who died in 1963, was little known in Great Barrington at the time of his death. Local detractors decried his Communist ties, a philosophy to which Du Bois briefly turned after years of harassment for his belief that blacks and whites deserved equal treatment.

And, Gunn noted, racism also played a part.

Since then, however, she said, "attitudes in town have changed, thank God," and the town is, for the most part, supportive of Du Bois memorial events.

Also speaking Sunday was Dr. Edmund Gordon, now faculty emeritus at Teachers' College, Columbia University. Gordon originally purchased the Route 23 site 41 years ago with his friend, Walter Wilson, a local Realtor.

Gordon spoke warmly of Wilson, another individual who helped get the Homesite Memorial off the ground.

He added that he hoped some day to see a visitors center built on the site.

Sunday's event was not just an afternoon of public discourse. Vocalist MaryNell Morgan and the Gospel Choir of the Price Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church of Pittsfield sang several numbers, including Du Bois' favorite hymn, "Go Down Moses."

In addition, Jay Schafer, director of libraries at UMass and artist Michael Singer updated the crowd on various Du Bois-related initiatives, including upgrades of the trail and signage at the homesite, the digitalization of about 100,000 of Du Bois' papers at UMass and the creation of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Scholarship, also at UMass.


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