Today is a historic day in the life of our community. On this day, the town of Great Barrington has etched into law a fitting, if long overdue, tribute to its native son W.E.B. Du Bois.
This unprecedented measure is even more remarkable knowing, as we do, that there was a time in our community when the mere mention of his name raised establishment eyebrows.
In fact, Du Bois was largely whitewashed from our local history and classrooms, a victim of the systemic racism he had spent his life fighting.
Change was hard, yet change was in the air. It came by way of those who marched to irreverent, or I should say, reverent drums. Veteran and newcomer Du Boisians, fighters all, believed that civil rights, progressive education, economic justice and racial equality were more than in-vogue words on banners lining Main Street. Du Bois inspired them by his example. They inspire us by their examples. As the Rev. Esther Dozier liked to say, “Dr. Du Bois lives in us.”
The truth is that Du Bois’ birthday celebrations have occurred for decades in Great Barrington. Yet safehouses of commemoration such as the former Clinton AME Zion Church, Macedonia Baptist Church, First Congregational Church and the Du Bois Center that had stepped up could step only so far. It was necessary for local government to defy historical precedent and begin reckoning with a past stained by deep-seated prejudices toward Du Bois.
Change was hard, yet change was inevitable. During these times that have exposed grave injustices embedded in our democracy, the Great Barrington Select Board challenged those deep-seated prejudices toward Du Bois. Refusing to turn back time, board members took a stand, voting their consciences in public. In the process, they unanimously established Great Barrington’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, Indigenous Peoples Day, W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Award and, as of today, Du Bois Day — reparative gifts to our community that will keep on giving.
An official guardian of the Du Bois flame, Great Barrington may well be our country’s first municipality to appoint a committee charged with safeguarding the legacy of an unrepentant activist for freedom. It is also the first to officially designate Feb. 23 as W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Day, or simply “Du Bois Day.” The Select Board envisioned it as a day of jubilee, where “reflection and celebration” would become part of the town’s DNA. And this is the heart of the matter.