Bernard Drew | Our Berkshires: Ripped from the headlines - 'U.S. Troops for Sheffield'

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Yes, that headline, "U.S. troops for Sheffield," is from The Berkshire Eagle — on Feb. 11, 1904.

Why soldiers were dispatched to South Berkshire eerily echoes the Black Lives Matter protests and banner desecration in Sheffield in July.

A subheadline further explained: "President [Theodore] Roosevelt Orders Troop of Cavalry to Protect the Town Against the Activities of Residents of New Guinea — Local Peace Officers All Tuckered Out."

The next day, The Eagle reported in "U.S. Troops Reach Sheffield": "The troops of United States cavalry ordered to this town by President Roosevelt arrived this morning and the men are in fine condition after their trip.

"A truce has been declared and the cavalry will this evening give a drill at the town hall in which they will show their efficiency in handling the carbine and saber."

Some historical background

The New Guinea section of Sheffield in the vicinity of Berkshire School and Bears Den roads — near the present Mount Everett Regional School — was home to a cluster of families of African descent.

Sheffield reportedly had a population of about 1,800 in 1903, 150 or more of them Blacks. Youngsters attended scattered neighborhood schools. New Guinea children walked the 2-some miles to Center School in Sheffield village. White parents complained that their children weren't receiving as much attention from the teachers as the needy Blacks. The school board and Superintendent A.J. Collins saw a quick solution. They reopened a small schoolhouse on Sheffield Plain (where the American Legion hall is today). They hired a recent Sheffield High School graduate — at the top of her class — Cora Fowler (1885-1943) as teacher. White as well as Black children from that section were expected to attend this school. But white parents griped about having a Black woman as teacher. They didn't send their children. Black families protested about the greater distance their scholars had to travel. The New Guinea mothers still took their children to Center School.

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They called Plain School a "Jim Crow" school.

School Board Chairman Edward Boardman and members Samuel Fox and Ira Manvel denied it was a Jim Crow school. National press picked up the story, some Southern papers barely disguising their glee. The Watertown News in Wisconsin mistook the story's location and gave as a dateline "Sheffield, Miss."

The truant officer ousted the Black children from Center School day after day. Three Black men — Edward A. Croslear (a Civil War veteran), Lyman Moore and Fred Freeman — were fined $1 each in district court for failure to obey the school redistricting.

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George R. Cook was loudest of the complaining Sheffield Plain white parents. The School Board dismissed Fowler and hired Cook's daughter, Daisy, as teacher. Miss Cook had an eighth-grade education. The board arranged for a sleigh-bus to pick up the New Guinea children. None took it.

Someone the night of Jan. 1, 1904, set fire to the Plain School. It burned to the ground. The Boston Globe (on Jan. 3, 1904) speculated the school authorities would be compelled to allow Black children in the village primary school, but the education committee immediately arranged to lease the Phillips house near Plain School from Peter Cassidy and modify it for Daisy Cook to resume classes Jan. 5.

Who set the fire was never determined.

Anna Collette, who had been teaching at Center School, resigned.

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History repeats itself

The new school quarters opened on the Plain — and soon shut down. Are you ready for it? An epidemic of measles kept most of the New Guinea children home until early March.

Believing they had the solution to a continuing problem, the Sheffield Board in late spring 1904 hired a Great Barrington surveyor to transit a small piece of land in New Guinea, with an idea of building a new school there. The site was directly south of the intersection of Bears Den Road and New Guinea Road (Berkshire School Road).

The new schoolhouse was begrudgingly accepted, and became more popular as life skills and vocational subjects were introduced at the urging of Charlotte Steadman Glenny (1865-1946) of Glenanna (today Berkshire School). Glenny was the second benefactor to the New Guineaites; the first, Georgiana Andrus, an associate matron at Hampton Institute, had raised money to build a small chapel in 1885. The church had several denominational affiliations until it closed in about 1918.

The New Guinea school — wasn't it still a Jim Crow school? — went through eight teachers in the dozen years it was open. It closed in 1918, when enrollment was only two students. The building is a residence today.

History has a way of repeating, doesn't it?

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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