Du Bois Legacy Festival to honor the Great Barrington native black scholar, civil rights leader

This weekend's Du Bois Legacy Festival in Great Barrington will celebrate the town's native son and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, with two days of events and readings to remember the scholar's work.

GREAT BARRINGTON — In his book, "The Souls of Black Folk," W.E.B. Du Bois talks about a kind of racist treachery that lives in sterilized language.

"Instead of saying directly, `How does it feel to be a problem?' they say, `I know an excellent colored man in my town.'"

That book about the African American experience was published in 1903. But its lessons still live on, even in Great Barrington, where some residents since the 1950s have recoiled at Du Bois' memory after the NAACP co-founder joined the American Communist Party late in life.

But those Cold War ghosts appear to have dispersed. Now the town where the African American scholar, poet and civil rights architect was born and raised is entering its third year of embracing and celebrating the hard truths of Du Bois' findings about the 20th century problem he called the "color-line."

The two-day W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Festival has come around again, and begins Saturday with events and readings to remember work that broadened an understanding of the black experience, and the threats to all true human freedom.

It will start in the morning with a slew of talks by Du Bois scholars, exhibits, music and dance, and ends with a Sunday night dinner. This year's theme is "An Enduring Education Legacy."

The festival is the work of the town's three-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, in concert with town officials, local groups, churches and businesses, as well as particularly the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries' W.E.B. Du Bois Center and its extensive collection.

Du Bois' presence is growing in the town's cultural and intellectual landscape. There is a dedicated garden at the Housatonic River Walk. The place where he was raised, a National Historic Landmark, is getting more attention. Students have painted murals in the heart of downtown, the town last year approved a statue of Du Bois to be placed outside the Mason Library, and the school district voted to rename after him the regional middle school located in the town.

"What's shifted is recognizing that he existed, and the willingness to claim him as a native son," said Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire branch of the NAACP.

He noted that Du Bois' work boiled down to a simple idea: "That we're all important, that it's about humanity, and humanity doesn't really have a color restriction," Powell said.

"He was transparent about his journey and about America, and his experience as a black scholar," said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, co-chair of the legacy committee. "We're really trying to make him accessible."

The depths of cultural dishonesty about race and truth that Du Bois wrote about is still wreaking havoc, she added.

"I think people have a hard time reckoning with all the ways that our country is duplicitous," she said. "We talk about liberty, but we were founded on oppression. I think that's what he wanted us to reckon with and fix."

VanSant said that these ideas and more will be explored throughout the festival, and that "The Souls of Black Folk" will be celebrated and discussed Saturday.

Randy Weinstein, co-chair of the committee and executive director of the Du Bois Center, said the culture in town has changed after so many years of an "us-versus-them" battle.

"We just didn't buy that kind of history," he said. "The town can be us. Making Du Bois an inclusive commodity is the way to go."

Cornell Brooks, the former president of the national NAACP, said that he couldn't imagine the town not elevating "so titanic of a figure in American history."

"That's like Princeton denying that Einstein lived there," he said in a 2018 statement, when the festival began.

Du Bois himself continues to light a path forward, perhaps with the cinders of all that came before.

"Believe in life!" he said. "Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

If you go ...

What: W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Festival

Where: Great Barrington

When: Saturday, Feb. 22

First program begins at 10:30 a.m., Mason Library, 231 Main St.

Sunday, Feb. 23

First program begins at 10:30 a.m., First Congregational Church, 251 Main St.

For full program details, go to duboislegacy.com