Great Barrington changes middle school name to honor Du Bois

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Fifteen years ago, a movement began to name one of the town's schools after its most famous architect of the civil rights era.

And on Thursday, through a simple vote by a school committee, history was made: The Berkshire Hills Regional school District School Committee voted unanimously to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School, W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.

The decision came after the committee was inundated with 350 plus emails, as well as objectors who presented the committee a petition signed by more than 200.

At the public hearing on Zoom, more than 200 logged on, mostly urging the district that also serves students from Stockbridge and West Stockbridge to honor Du Bois — not just for his voluminous contributions to the understanding of the African American experience in America, but also given the current crisis, and national civil unrest over the lives of Black citizens.

"It rings in their hearts and their heads, the pride that they'll be able to carry," said Vanessa LeGrande, parent and town resident, of students' internal response to a school named for Du Bois. "Do my babies have to learn about Du Bois on their own when they're 56-years-old like their mother, grandmother and great grandmother?"

Opponents of the renaming cited long-held concerns by veterans about Du Bois late-in-life membership in the Communist Party of the United States.

"Unlike Du Bois [veterans] didn't turn their back on America and support communism," said Andy Moro, a Vietnam War veteran.

The decision came after voters of the three towns in the district at 2019 annual town meetings said yes to the renaming. Local nonprofit MultiCultural Bridge had presented petitions to do so.

With citizen approval, the decision was then up to the School Committee.

Old wounds

The renaming debate dates to 2004, when local historian and writer Bernard Drew, backed by a number of residents, floated the idea for the renaming of either the middle school or what became Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School.

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The district built the new schools after leaving its old buildings downtown and in Housatonic.

In 2005, amid what a committee member at the time called a "media circus," the committee decided on geographic names for the new schools which would open that year.

But the decision left many thorns in old wounds across town. Many saw it as quiet, provincial racism, or an evasion of controversy.

Over the years, supporters turned to other ways to honor Du Bois, a towering thinker who was born in a little house on Church Street five years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

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Du Bois was a product of local schools before members of his church and other residents pooled money to send him to Fisk University. He went on to Harvard University, where he would be the first Black to receive a Ph.D.

But the NAACP co-founder also had long been marked for government surveillance for a lifetime of ideas deemed subversive, as he perfected his philosophy of human freedom, and racial and economic justice.

In the years after his death in Ghana in 1963, an attempt to dedicate the farmstead on which he spent much of his childhood as a national landmark stirred upset across the Berkshires.

But Du Bois was a steady thinker.

"He was constantly acquiring data," said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, founder and CEO of Multicultural Bridge and co-chair of the town's W.E.B. Du Bois Committee. "He stood for what education should be and what a teacher should model."

Clemente Sajquiy Ramirez, an immigrant, and Native American from Guatemala, said even the town's small landmarks that honor Du Bois are a "form of support," he said.

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"These little actions or events speak," he added, noting that they make him feel welcome.

Jeff Lowenstein echoed this, quoting Du Bois: "Children learn more from what you are than what you teach," he said, adding that so many are pained to discover Du Bois' work late in life.

Others, like Michael Casey, want to keep names off a school to offer "neutrality."

But David Long said it is better to have children inspired, not by bitterness, but forward movement.

"Du Bois to me is a symbol of America's attempt to try to move beyond the original sins of this country and to a better place," he said.

Of Du Bois' turn to communism and flight to Ghana, Rev. Joallen Forte of Macedonia Baptist Church evoked the Bible's mandate to only cast stones if you are without sin.

Mike Adams said his going to Africa at the end of his life is a way Black men can find the root in what is a spiritual journey.

Diane Singer, a committee member, said she was moved by all the letters from young people who had seen or experienced racism at district schools.

"I am ashamed," she said.

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


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