Du Bois' great-grandson ready to 'take the torch' to promote legacy

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Standing in the same church where W.E.B Du Bois worshipped as a boy, his great-grandson — for probably the fourth time in his life, he said — ate a slice of birthday cake in his honor.

The bar always has been set high for family of the famed scholar and activist, but for Jeffrey Peck, 52, it wasn't until recently when his mother has started expecting him to take on the duty of representing the Du Bois legacy.

"For her, it's time for me to take the torch," Peck said after a Great Barrington celebration honoring what would have been his great-grandfather's 151st birthday. "I guess the pressure's coming now."

More than 100 people gathered at First Congregational Church on Saturday to listen to speakers and performers honor Du Bois, who was born 2 miles from downtown Great Barrington.

The town's Du Bois Legacy Committee also honored Dr. David Levering Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Du Bois Scholar. The award was accepted by the scholar's former student and collaborator, Kendra Field, who is the director of the Tufts University Center for the Study of Race and Democracy.

Levering Lewis' two-part biography on Du Bois chronicled the progressive intellectual's life, including what childhood was like for a black youth in rural Great Barrington.

The Berkshire native went on to become the first African-American to graduate with a Ph.D. from Harvard University, publish several books, co-found the NAACP and serve as an editor to The Crisis magazine.

Peck, of Houston, said that it's still hard to believe all that one man accomplished in his life.

His mother, Du Bois' only grandchild, never got used to the attention he would receive when the family got off a plane in a new city. To her, now a retired psychologist and professor at Xavier University, he was Grandpa.

While Peck's father would talk to him about Du Bois' accomplishments, his mother would share more about their personal relationship.

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"By the time I was five, I was doing all my black history writing about him," Peck said.

While Du Bois' family didn't buy a cake to honor his birthday each year, his Febuary birthday always sparked conversations about the legacy.

"We've celebrated it over the years," he said. "We'd talk about his effect on society and the world in general."

Peck recalled once reading that Albert Einstein had a role in the formation of the NAACP. It wasn't until later that his mother told him that Einstein often would come to the family home to meet with Du Bois.

Because of his intellect and tendency to speak more formally, Du Bois wasn't the easiest person to communicate with on a personal level, Peck said. But that wasn't an issue with Einstein.

"He was one of the few men that understood him," he recalled his mother saying.

In years past, Peck's older brother was the ambassador for their great-grandfather's story and did most of the traveling and speaking on behalf of their family.

But now, Peck, with his drag racing career mostly behind him, is looking forward to taking over the duties.

His youngest daughter, 7, is learning about Du Bois in school and from family. His 25-year-old son, too, has taken an interest in the family history, ever since he traveled to Great Barrington last February.

"He got a chance to see all of this. It really moved him," Peck said at the church Saturday. "He realizes now that he's part of something bigger."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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