As Great Barrington celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, it is apparent that a town that was slow to embrace the remarkable legacy of its native son has now done so. That process would perhaps be complete if Great Barrington and the Berkshire Hills School District undid a wrong from 14 years ago that in retrospect was the last vestige of the town's reluctance to accept its link to Mr. Du Bois and honor that connection.
A festival honoring Mr. Du Bois, organized by a committee chaired by longtime Du Bois champions Randy Weinstein and Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, got underway with a variety of events on January 15. The celebration culminates on February 23, which would have been the 150th birthday of the African-American civil rights leader, scholar and author.
Like every man and woman who spoke out in defense of the rights of disenfranchised minorities, Mr. Du Bois angered many in America, including the political and law enforcement establishment. He was harassed throughout much of his life by the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover, which most notoriously slandered Martin Luther King Jr. and targeted many outspoken civil rights leaders.
Mr. Du Bois' embrace of communism and move to Ghana late in life stirred further controversy but were understandable in light of the way he was treated by the American power structure. Cold War-era Communist bashing seems quaint now but in the 1950s and 1960s it was as virulent as is the ugly immigrant-bashing in the U.S. today. Mr. Du Bois died in Ghana in 1963, and while the U.N. and organizations in Africa were quick to honor him for his accomplishments, recognition came more slowly in the U.S. and in Great Barrington.
That local recognition, however, eventually began to come through the tireless efforts of many over the years. In 2004, a movement took hold, led by, among others, Rachel Fletcher, founder of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail Advisory Council, and Berkshire Eagle "Our Berkshires" columnist Bernard Drew, a Great Barrington resident, to name Great Barrington's new elementary school after Mr. Du Bois. He was a natural choice given his accomplishments as an educator and his affection for his home town and the schools that educated him. Mr. Du Bois wrote affectionately of his high school principal, Frank Hosmer, for example. In a letter to the editor printed in The Eagle, Ms. Fletcher wrote that "more than any other alumnus of the school district [Du Bois] exhibits the promise of public education."
Unfortunately, the BHRSD School Committee, without explanation and in an apparent bid to dodge any controversy, established guidelines forbidding the school to be named after an individual or specific racial or ethnic group. "If others object to naming the school for Mr. Du Bois because he was black or a a communist in late life let them say so," wrote The Eagle in an editorial. "The School Committee, which purports to be in the education business, should not limit the terms of public debate."
The School Committee didn't budge, however, and the school was named Muddy Brook. If it had been named after an notable local geographic feature, as was Monument Mountain Regional High School, the slight might have been forgiven, but to name the school after a bog was a particularly sharp slap to Mr. Du Bois and his advocates.
We feel confident that in today's climate the school would have been named after Mr. Du Bois without hesitation or controversy. So why not right the wrong? We urge the students, parents, faculty and administrators and town officials who make up the Berkshire Hills Regional School District to lobby the School Committee to first revise the narrow, shortsighted naming policy of 14 years ago and then change the name of the Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School to the W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Elementary School.
That change will provide a boost to those in South Berkshire County who feel disenfranchised due to their race, ethnicity or immigration status. More broadly, it will honor a native son of Great Barrington and Berkshire County who has more than earned that honor and tell everyone inside and outside of the district that the BHRSD knows its history and cherishes education, as did Mr. Du Bois during his long, accomplished life and career.