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Plans for a W.E.B. Du Bois statue (and a gathering place) are revitalized in Great Barrington

GREAT BARRINGTON — With bronze and marble, an independent group of local citizens hopes to revive a yearslong initiative to honor a native son.

The centerpiece of the efforts would be a life-size bronze sculpture of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). The famous scholar, writer and champion of civil rights and economic justice was born and raised in Great Barrington. The statue would be part of a larger plaza envisioned for the front yard of the Mason Library, on Main Street. The plaza would utilize native marble.

The town’s Board of Library Trustees appeared to endorse the project on Tuesday night, though it didn't vote on it. Some trustees indicated the board didn't need to vote since it had endorsed an earlier version of the plans back in 2018, after the idea had first come before the town.

Before the project can move forward, it will require approval from the Historic District Commission. The commission’s meeting this past Thursday was cancelled. Because the library is town-owned, the Select Board would also have to approve accepting the statue and plaza as a gift. The project would not utilize local taxpayer money.

“I applaud members of the community for stepping up in the midst of a pandemic to develop an imaginative streetscape that has the potential to become a focal point for downtown Great Barrington,” said Patrick Hollenbeck, chairman of the Board of Library Trustees.

The Trustees appointed one of their own, Lauren Clark, a downtown art gallery owner, to serve as liaison to the citizen group spearheading the project, the Du Bois Sculpture and Education Project. Clark has also been invited to join a committee that will choose the sculptor.

The Du Bois Sculpture and Education Project estimates it will need to raise $350,000 for the project. It will do so through donations and foundation grants.

“I expect it will take two to three years to raise funds and cast the statue,” said Julie Michaels, of West Stockbridge, the chair of group. “I am now in discussion with various nonprofit entities to find a fiscal sponsor who can collect these funds.”

Michaels has taken over the initiative following the death from bone cancer in 2020 of her friend Freke Vuijst-Klein, the Dutch journalist who settled in the Berkshires with her husband, Daniel Klein, and advocated on behalf of the successful effort to rename the local middle school for Du Bois.

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In preparation for its meeting with the Historic District Commission, the Du Bois Sculpture and Education Project has secured an architect’s renderings for the proposed plaza and bench.

“In conceptualizing the sculpture, we have chosen to create a scholarly Du Bois, hands on a favorite book, seated on a bench that arches out from the current outdoor staircase,” Michaels explained in a statement. “This will create a gathering space for the town. The library apron is already much-used for selling books on the weekends.

“We envision people joining Du Bois to sit, read, visit and learn. To further emphasize the influence of this great man, we will engrave a quote from Du Bois onto the marble bench, thus linking the seating to the monument.”

She said the plan remains “a work in progress” and that her group has been working with Friends of Great Barrington Libraries and the town’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee.

Contingent upon approval from the Historic District Commission and acceptance from the Select Board, Michaels said she plans to assemble a more formal, larger and diverse board to help raise funds and spread the word.

Her group had initially proposed that the local artist Dai Ban create the sculpture. But following feedback from the Trustees and others, she said an artist — possibly Ban — would be chosen through a competition.

“We listened to the community, and while Ban will be presenting his model for the competition, we will also ask for other proposals,” she said.

Ban created a small, rough model for the sculpture of Du Bois that has been on display at the Mason Library along with a small model depicting one idea for the plaza. Library visitors have been invited to jot down comments about the plans using a form next to the two models.

The collection of comments is growing, and the reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

Felix Carroll can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6391.

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