At Pittsfield forum, a look at 'Being Black in the Berkshires' in the past and present

Frances Jones-Sneed of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts speaks at a panel discussion Friday titled "Being Black in the Berkshires." The event was convened by Pittsfield's Human Rights Commission and the NAACP Berkshire County Branch.

PITTSFIELD — "Black people have been in the Berkshires since the very beginning. We are not the newcomers," historian Frances Jones-Sneed told an audience of more than 100 women, children and men gathered to talk about the subject Friday night.

The city's Human Rights Commission and the NAACP Berkshire County Branch convened the 90-minute forum titled "Being Black in the Berkshires," which the Rev. Sloan T. Letman IV was glad to host at Second Congregational Church, United Church of Christ.

After all, the church was home to one of the city's most prominent pastors, the Rev. Samuel Harrison, chaplain to the first all-black infantry to fight in the Civil War, the famed 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.

The Human Rights Commission's Drew Herzig emceed the evening and said that while, sometimes, events like these might seem like preaching to the choir — with only people who care about the subject showing up, versus those who might be unaware — "but sometimes the choir falls asleep during the sermon and they can miss things."

Jones-Sneed said that in Berkshire County's history, the black population peaked at around 3.2 percent.

"There were very few, but we all have, most of us have, been activists in one way or another," she said, noting how rich the region is in a history of black intellectual leaders, artists, abolitionists, educators and other change-makers.

Today, the county's black population remains about the same percentage, but with a new generation of community activists and cultural influencers, several of whom were featured at the event.

Jones-Sneed, professor emeritus of history and former director of Women Studies at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and co-director of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, spoke along with four other prominent contemporary black leaders of the county.

Alfred K. Enchill, district aide to state Sen. Adam Hinds' Berkshire County office, moderated the event as a private citizen deeply interested in the topic, asking Jones-Sneed and the other panelists, Shirley Edgerton, MEd, Eden-Renee Hayes, Ph.D., and Dennis Powell, a range of questions regarding representations of blacks in schools, media, history, books, businesses and communities in general.

The speakers collectively indicated the need for all residents of Berkshire County to better know the history and heritage of the place, from the racism to the change.

According to the most recent Census Bureau data, 92 percent of Berkshire County residents are white, about 5 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 3 percent are black or African-American, and 1 percent Asian. But representation varies in different environments, from schools to the workplace.

Based on current state data for Pittsfield Public Schools, 66 percent of the student population is white. The city's African-American students make up 11 percent, 13 percent are Hispanic, nearly 9 percent identify from multiple racial backgrounds, and 1 percent reflect Asian ethnicity.

"It's not just black kids that need to learn about black folks; we need to get beyond that. It's about people being educated and having regard and respect for all people," said Edgerton, cultural competency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools.

Hayes, dean of Equity and Inclusion and associate professor of psychology at Bard College at Simon's Rock, gave the audience an anecdote about the lack of people understanding the importance of being aware of the range of histories and backgrounds that a diverse community has.

While screening schools for her 5-year-old, she asked a public school principal, "How often do your teachers get cultural competence education?"

"And [the principal] started talking to me about fire drills," Hayes said, adding that the principal then suggested that she ask the state education department to mandate cultural training for teachers. "I was floored," she said.

Hayes selected a different local public school for her child.

Powell reflected on earlier times when he also saw flaws in the way black Americans were treated in the local community, but he opted to hold his tongue "so there wouldn't be repercussions on my children." Now, he said, for the sake of his grown children and grandchildren, as president of the NAACP Berkshire County Branch, he's choosing to address issues directly.

He referred to an incident in Lanesborough this week where a friend of several of the panelists and audience members woke to find a racial slur spray-painted in black across his white garage door.

"We can't change [the issue of racism in the county] until we address it, and address the fact that it's real," he said.