Proposed Du Bois statue at library rekindles controversy similar to debate in 1968

A watercolor by Donna Drew depicts a statue of Great Barrington native son W.E.B. Du Bois reading a book on the grounds of the Mason Library.

GREAT BARRINGTON — On a Saturday in October 1969, a legion of sheriff's deputies armed with riot gear and tear gas had encamped in the Select Board's office at Town Hall. The reason was communism. Some say it was racism.

It happened during the dedication of the W.E.B. Du Bois boyhood homesite as a national landmark.

The deputies had been bivouacked to Town Hall in case of a clash between local ultra patriots, made up of mostly veterans groups, and black militants from New York and other cities. A National Guard unit was on high alert, as well, and a single-engine U.S. Army aircraft did some aerial surveillance of the homesite off Route 23, where about 800 people, including celebrities and civil rights stars, had come to celebrate this African-American native son.

"We had arranged to meet any eventuality," then-Police Chief Emmett Shea said in an interview at the time.

The anticipated violence never transpired, and local police with four state police troopers at the dedication lifted nary a finger to quell anything.

Fast-forward 50 years, to what would be Du Bois' 150th year: the town's library trustees vote unanimously in support of a proposal to put a statute of Du Bois on the front lawn of the Mason Library. The rebellion hasn't yet reached some of the shrill heights of invective as was heard in 1968. But some opponents of the statute still are sounding off on the same patriot-based themes decrying Du Bois' turn to communism.

Other veterans, like Charles Flynn, a former Egremont town and school official, said he simply doesn't want a statute of a "divisive person" to create conflict at a place that is designed to unite people.

"I want to see people come together; I don't want to see people divided," Flynn said. "[Du Bois] did some good things and some divisive things. We've got too much division in this country now. We're taking down statutes [elsewhere] ... let's put them in places where we know where they'll stay."

Flynn, like other residents who spoke at a recent library trustee meeting held to address the issue, suggested putting the statute somewhere else, off public property, and possibly at the Du Bois boyhood homesite.

The tension in October 1969 had all started a year earlier, with a war of words that coursed through Berkshire County newspapers when the memorial was proposed. The scholar, author, poet and civil rights pioneer had, in 1961, joined the American Communist Party in despair over continued racial and economic injustice in the U.S. He then moved to Ghana, where he died two years later.

In 1968, the talk was tougher than it is now. Letters from veterans, one after another, from around the county fueled the fire. A few local officials and state legislators joined the fray. It was neighbor against neighbor. Even neighbor against clergy, as when a Berkshire Courier editorial slammed a St. James Episcopal Church curate for suggesting that racism had set off the Du Bois flap, not patriotism. Residents fumed, and their letters filled the papers.

"The first resistance to the British that resulted in the Revolutionary War started in Great Barrington," wrote Russell Willcox of South Egremont, referencing the August 1774 revolt preventing the meeting of the Berkshire County Court in Great Barrington, in a letter to the Berkshire Courier. "The Communists have vowed to take away the freedom we won then."

In the 50 years since this storm whipped through the Berkshires, attitudes changed — slowly.

"Better late than never," quipped Select Board member Ed Abrahams, after photos of Du Bois and his family were installed last year in Town Hall.

Now, it's a place whose officials have signed off on policies to promote racial and social justice, and with a Police Department having recently joined a national program to improve access to hate crime reports. The Cold War long over, cries of treason might not resonate this time around.

"I do actually believe the town has changed," said Freke Vuijst, a former journalist who, with her husband, writer Daniel Klein, helped start the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Statue Initiative last year to raise money and find a location.

Vuijst said that the group is working out what she said is "a little of a chicken and egg problem" of raising private money, while also sorting out the town approval path. She does not yet have estimates for how much is needed to commission the proposed statute. She said the idea of placing it on a pedestal seemed "too imposing," so the group settled on Du Bois sitting on a bench. It's also cheaper.

"He was not an orator like Martin Luther King Jr.," she said. "He was a man of the written word. So, what better place than our wonderful library? It would be lovely, because you could sit next to him and have your imaginary debates with him."

She said it was out of the question to place the statute at his homesite.

"No — that is like hiding it away. We're not going to raise the money to have it hidden."

Vuijst is no stranger to Du Bois controversy. She was one of the residents who, in 2004, petitioned the school district to name its new elementary school after him.

"That didn't go anywhere," she said of what was a somewhat quieter attempt among officials to snuff controversy, amid a brief revolt among supporters.

But long before that, when she was working as a foreign correspondent, she interviewed civil rights leader Julian Bond for Dutch television. Bond had been a prominent supporter of the homesite memorial.

"I was chit-chatting with him and said, `I live in a small town called Great Barrington, I'm sure you've never heard of it.' And he laughed and said, `I know it so well,' and said he was there the day of the dedication. I said, `Things have changed in Great Barrington,' and he said, `Are you sure?'"

These latest censures regarding communism trouble her. She said the complex reasons for Du Bois' decision, at that moment in U.S. history, are squelched in favor of simplistic, outdated principles.

"In the times we live in, there's not much room for context," she said. "[Du Bois] really was one of the most important African-American thinkers and intellectuals, and he comes from this town, he loved this town, and this town supported him and sent him on his way."

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