Name school after Du Bois? Debate reignites, but it's less heated

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The bitter debate over whether to name a school in honor of Great Barrington native and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois has been reignited 14 years later — but this time, the situation isn't as fiery.

The success of the W.E.B. Du Bois 150th birthday celebration has fans and scholars of the newly created Du Bois Legacy Committee renewing efforts to rename a school and build a statue of the man on Main Street.

Du Bois is a co-founder of the NAACP, the author of "The Souls of Black Folk" and a civil rights activist whose ideas about race relations were ahead of the times. He was also a firebrand unafraid to call out injustice.

Later in life, as a rejection of capitalism, Du Bois joined the Communist Party USA and moved to Ghana.

The proposals have drawn pushback from people who don't believe Du Bois is worthy of this level of hometown pride, but it's nothing like the animosity that tore at the community in 2004, the previous time the idea of honoring Du Bois with a school was considered.

This is good news for advocates; without the community's support, neither honor will happen, said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, the legacy committee's co-chairman and CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE. An election needs to take place to change the name on a school building, and an art installation can't be placed on public property without Select Board approval.

"The entire turnaround on Du Bois is hard to fathom," said Randy Weinstein, the legacy committee's other co-chairman and director of the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington.

Weinstein recalled a moment during the 150th celebration on Du Bois' birthday in February when then-Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton revealed his pride in Du Bois. To have the town support Du Bois so openly was a wild experience for Weinstein.

"In my wildest dreams, 15 to 20 years ago, I never would have thought that would happen," he said.

Andy Moro, who is against renaming the building, said in a letter to the Berkshire Edge that Du Bois was a Communist and therefore should not receive such a special honor.

"As a Marine Corps veteran, I resent the thought of honoring a communist on town property," he wrote.

Moro also suggested locating a statue of Du Bois at his boyhood homesite on Egremont Road. There is no home at the lot, which is listed as a National Historic Site, but there is a self-guided walking tour that takes people on a journey through Du Bois' life provided by the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site Working Committee.

"It's better than what we had, it's better than not getting a statue," VanSant said. "We agree there should be a statue; that's something in common, and we can build from there."

The legacy committee is suggesting that Monument Valley Regional Middle School be renamed for Du Bois. For the change to happen, a majority of voters in each of Berkshire Hills Regional School District's member towns — Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — needs to approve the measure in an election. The committee is planning to draft ballot questions and gather resident signatures to get the renaming question before voters.

Moro did not return a call for comment Thursday.

A statue for Du Bois is in its earliest planning phase. In mid-May, residents Danny Klein and Freke Vuijst presented to the Board of Library Trustees the idea of creating a Du Bois statue and locating it at Mason Library. The library trustees voted unanimously to host the Du Bois statue on its front lawn in downtown Great Barrington.

What the statue will look like isn't clear. Vuijst presented an artist's drawing of a standing Du Bois, but the trustees suggested that Du Bois be seated on a bench, which would allow visitors to sit next to him and take photos.

"I imagine children sitting with him," VanSant said.

The legacy committee is searching for potential sculptors and has pledged to get design approval from the trustees before building the statue.

"They're the ones who are going to see it every day; they should be comfortable with it," Vuijst said.

The Du Bois debate is a familiar one in Great Barrington. In 2004, Du Bois advocates wanted to name the elementary school after the scholar. Residents were divided on the name. In response, the district school committee established guidelines forbidding schools to be named after an individual, racial or ethnic group. The school was named Muddy Brook.

"There's a lot of educated people and young people out there who managed to get the [plastic water bottle ban] everyone was against to go through," Vuijst said.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini on Twitter, and 413 629-4621.


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