Effort underway in Great Barrington to rename middle school for Du Bois

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It's yet another move to bring a native son's legacy home after a long exile born from a lingering Cold War hysteria.

A citizen's petition filed with Town Hall last month is asking Great Barrington voters to consider whether they would support renaming Monument Valley Regional Middle School to W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.

The renaming idea to honor the African-American scholar, writer and early civil rights leader is percolating outside the town's official W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, but will likely find support within it, noted Chairman Randy Weinstein.

Tim Likarish, who filed the petition on Jan. 31, said when moving to the Berkshire two years ago, he chose Great Barrington, in part, because of Du Bois and because he likes the quality of "civil engagement" here. A volunteer with nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE, Likarish said informal conversations with school officials indicated that it would be crucial to get community support from voters in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, as well, since they are the other two towns within the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

"What we were hearing from the school board and superintendent is that for the renaming to happen we need to show there is public support for it," he wrote in an email. "So we've decided to try and have discussion at the annual town meeting to show that support. We're hoping to have residents in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge propose similar discussions at their town meetings. If these all go well, we're hoping to work with the school board to help them implement the change."

Local honors for Du Bois continue to roll in decades after the Great Barrington-born and raised civil rights icon's memory was squelched. Du Bois' lifetime of scholarship upending the status quo about racial and economic equality had marked him for government surveillance, and his turn to communism late in life had pitted the region's veterans against honoring him in town.

The Berkshire Hills Regional School District has been here before.

In 2003, a group of residents lobbied the district to name its new elementary school for Du Bois. But his controversial figure killed the idea, and the school went on to be named for the nearby Muddy Brook.

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Now, however, the atmosphere is different. The town last year embarked on its annual Du Bois festival, kicking up support and momentum for recognition of him.

Gwendolyn VanSant, Multicultural BRIDGE's founder and CEO, says the renaming idea isn't meant to rip open the wounds of yesteryear, but to connect the school's name with its Du Bois curriculum.

"We are not trying to reignite conflict," said VanSant, who is also the vice chairwoman of the town's Legacy Committee. "This is about healing a real rupture in the community, to sort of repair Du Bois' legacy. We're trying to move forward."

VanSant also said a secondary idea is to rename the middle school library. The petition requires 10 signatures to bring it up for discussion and a vote at Annual Town Meeting.

VanSant said a community exploration of the idea is what's needed. "We want to have that conversation at town meeting," she said.

But residents in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge will have to agree, said Stephen Bannon, chairman of the district's school committee. Bannon said the committee has not yet been officially consulted about the renaming, nor have members taken a position.

"My guess is that this is just gauging the will of the people," he said. "But it will mean nothing to the School Committee if it's only one town that's gauging it, even if the town has 70 percent of the students."

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


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