Couple to preserve Great Barrington writing cabin of civil rights leader James Weldon Johnson

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The bed is disintegrating and there's a hole in the floor. The original windows have continued to break into bits over the years, and so now they're boarded up with Plexiglas. A tarp was installed on the roof.

But it wasn't always like this in the cabin on a hill next to the Alford Brook. In the 1920s and '30s, it was where civil rights giant, songwriter and poet James Weldon Johnson wrote a collection of spiritual prose and sought peace and inspiration.

Now Rufus Jones and Jill Rosenberg-Jones are trying to save and preserve the cabin where Johnson most notably wrote "God's Trombones," which works the rhythm of the African American preacher's sermon.

This is a sermon-ready spot, for sure. The wind is whispering through the trees as the Joneses, who bought Johnson's home and the 5-acre property off Alford Road in 2011, explain that one of his poems, "The Creation," describes these surroundings from this perch nestled in an ancient hemlock grove.

"He has a line where he says, `And God spangled the sky with stars,' and it's just so beautiful and when you look up at night, it looks like the skies are spangled," said Rosenberg-Jones, who is the literary executor of Johnson's estate.

Johnson was also an NAACP official, a lawyer, educator and diplomat. But he is most renowned for co-writing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is also referred to as the "Black National Anthem." He was a prolific writer as well and one of the early visionaries of the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Johnson and his wife, Grace Nail Johnson, bought the property known as "Five Acres" in 1926 and spent summers here. Now the main house is the Joneses' summer home, and the couple and their teenage son travel back and forth from Jersey City, N.J.

In 2016, the couple, who both work in finance, founded the James Weldon Johnson Foundation to advance his legacy by establishing an artist residency at nearby Bard College at Simon's Rock, to support various projects in the arts, and to preserve Five Acres and the cabin.

But it is the cabin and the land around it that fuel this fire to keep Johnson's memory alive, since his spirit is strong here, the Joneses say.

"We're having a common emotional experience at this place, just by being able to touch the land, and walk the land," Rufus Jones said. "And it's in the Berkshires."

It certainly stirred Johnson's soul in wonderment. In "God's Trombones," he captured the style of the "old-time Negro preacher," he says in the book's introduction, "who loved the sonorous, mouth-filling, ear-filling phrase because it gratified a highly developed sense of sound and rhythm in himself and his hearers."

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Shod with castoff wood mill rejects, the cabin appears very old, but no one is sure of just how old. Rosenberg-Jones said they plan to have the cabin date-tested, and will also test the surrounding trees, which one timber-framing expert said were likely "primeval."

They are also planning to do archaeological work around the cabin and have a vision for a future curriculum at schools in the region that would use the cabin and surroundings as its basis of teaching about Johnson's contributions to American culture.

"This is a search and discovery mission," Rufus Jones said, noting the draw the Berkshires had for some of America's most important artists and intellects. "Melville, Hawthorne, Du Bois, and this is just an extension of the history of this place in the Berkshires. It's why is this place so special; why people come here — black and white — it's a loving, nurturing environment."

The couple met with a local architect this week to work on a stabilization and preservation plan for the cabin, which is the priority. Rufus Jones said that while they might look for state historic preservation funds in future, they are "self-funding" everything now. Estimates for a preservation job vary wildly from $30,000 to around $450,000, he said.

Eventually, the Foundation might also consider other preservation work on the property.

"There are not many places like this left," Rufus Jones added, noting the significance of Great Barrington to African Americans.

Though until recently, with an upswing of local honors of W.E.B. Du Bois, this significance has been somewhat muted. But that's all changing.

"It's another marker of how rich African American history is here," Rufus Jones said. "It's also rich for American history, for artists, for creative people."

This preservation plan is its own work of art, Rufus Jones said.

"We're trying to figure it out and understand what this place means to American history and culture."

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


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