Efforts to honor black scholar, activist continue in Great Barrington
GREAT BARRINGTON — The nation of Ghana honored the late George Floyd this month by placing his name at the W.E.B. Du Bois Center, an act that linked the May 25 victim of police violence with one of this country's most celebrated black intellectuals.
Back in DuBois' hometown of Great Barrington, efforts continue to honor him, at a time when monuments of Confederate generals and other racist symbols around the country are driven out.There are two plans in the works: a sculpture of Du Bois in a prominent location downtown, and the renaming of Monument Valley Regional Middle School after Du Bois.
The campaign to rename one of the town's schools after the co-founder of the NAACP could go quicker. Voters last year at annual town meetings in three towns approved the renaming. To get it done, however, it still needs a vote from the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's School Committee. Chairman Stephen Bannon said someone only need ask.
"Someone has to come to us and request it, and then we can put [the vote] on the agenda," he said.
In the last two years, advocates have made progress in their push for the sculpture. They'll be meeting again this week. The project has stalled and requires money, but is still on track, proponents say.
Both initiatives follow a local and broader effort nationwide to bring Du Bois and his work on social justice back into the cultural and intellectual consciousness.
Until recently, it's been slow going in his hometown. Veteran groups and others have opposed official recognition — including a renaming of the school in 2004 — citing Du Bois turn to communism and a move to Ghana late in life. The renaming effort in 2019 also sparked some controversy. And some said the schools shouldn't be named after people.
When it landed on a library trustees agenda in 2018, a discussion about a memorial there rekindled the conflict.
Yet the tone has largely changed. Town government now has a W.E.B. Legacy Committee and annual Du Bois festival. And on June 6, a Black Lives Matter standout at Town Hall drew more than 1,000.
"We as a town have done so much that that protest there was quintessential Du Bois," said Randy Weinstein, executive director of the Du Bois Center off Route 7. "Having the whole spectrum of black, white, young, old — that was Du Bois. That's our tribute to Du Bois and that's his gift to us."
The sculpture was originally slated for the sidewalk in front of the Mason Library. The idea and originated with residents Danny Klein and Freke Vuijst, as well as Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, founder and CEO of Multicultural BRIDGE. The trio started the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Statue Initiative and partnered with Chesterwood, the summer home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French.
Vuijst and Klein undertook research in their quest for a memorial, and went through town permitting. As conceived, it features a contemplative Du Bois, who was born a short walk from the library, sitting on a bench. Patrick Hollenbeck, chairman of the library trustees, said it's possible a sculpture could be positioned somewhere even better downtown.
Hampton VanSant agreed, and said BRIDGE and Chesterwood will carry the project forward. A Georgia sculptor, Ayokunle Odeleye, has offered his help. Odeleye, whose studio made a bronze bust of Du Bois for Clark Atlanta University, also could be chosen to do the work by a panel that will be created to decide.
"Chesterwood is an amazing partner to have because they have the expertise," Hampton VanSant said.
Odeleye's studio specializes in large-scale memorials and monuments. Even if he isn't commissioned, he said he'll help, given Du Bois' "deep and important legacy."
Odeleye, who spoke at the Du Bois festival in town in February, also said that the climate after Floyd's death could quicken fundraising in a place with a resurgence of interest in the contributions of a native son.
"I was very impressed with the progressiveness and energy in that community," he said.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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