Great Barrington creates Legacy Committee to honor W.E.B. Du Bois

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The W.E.B. Du Bois honors keep coming, after decades of what scholars, local activists and some town officials have said was a pernicious lack of honors for the towering native son.

To robust applause, the town unanimously agreed Monday to create a permanent town committee to promote and preserve the legacy of Du Bois, the African-American scholar, civil rights movement architect and writer who tackled civil and economic rights at the turn of the century and beyond.

"As we move ahead together in community may we heed Du Bois' teachings and grow in solidarity and purpose as a town and with our neighbors," Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, co-chair of the Du Bois Legacy Committee, wrote in a statement issued after the board meeting. Hampton VanSant is president and CEO of local nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE.

The board established the committee on the 55th anniversary of Du Bois' death in Ghana in 1963.

Hampton VanSant, as well as co-chair Randy Weinstein of the Du Bois Center on South Main Street, were co-chairs of the Du Bois 150th Festival, which launched in January and stretched into the summer.

The festival, celebrated around the world, kicked off a new atmosphere of reverence and appreciation for Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington five years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

"This festival touched residents of all ages, while we learned together and sang together, we healed a divide in our community as we listened to one another," she further wrote. "I hope we continue to listen together and cultivate justice."

The committee, which will have seven members, will organize annual events, seminars and displays at Mason Library. It will partner, as the festival committee did, with UMass Amherst Libraries, which has a massive collection of Du Bois archives.

It was the Harvard University graduate's foray into communism two years before he died at age 95 that set local veterans groups against honoring his legacy. And just this year, several veterans turned up at the Mason Library to argue against installing a proposed statute of Du Bois on the lawn.

But it appears that these sentiments might be fading from the majority.

In a letter of support for the committee, John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, acknowledged that Du Bois cut a controversial figure, but said exploring his intellectual contributions "will help us advance our work toward greater social and economic equality in Berkshire County."

"Like many historic figures, Du Bois is a complex figure with many facets to his personality," Bissell further said in his letter to the board. "But do we really see his politics as any less challenging in the questioning of our patriotic ideas than the slave ownership of other towering figures like founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson?"

Weinstein said the establishment of this committee, and what it symbolizes, is a monumental step.

"This means that for the first time in Great Barrington history, the Select Board will become the guardian of the Du Bois flame. Should this come to pass on Monday, Great Barrington may well be the first municipality in the country to so honor Du Bois," he said.

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


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