Great Barrington to mark 50 years since Du Bois Boyhood Homesite dedication

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GREAT BARRINGTON — At the height of the civil rights struggle in 1969, anything honoring scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois wasn't going to be easy.

But 50 years later, it's all turned around. And on Friday, the dedication of the Du Bois Boyhood Homesite off Route 23 will be celebrated by the town with talks, readings, exhibits and musical performances — and gladly.

"There's a willingness now of the town to reflect on things and not go by ways of the past," said Randy Weinstein, executive director of the Du Bois Center Great Barrington.

Weinstein and Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant are co-chairs of the town's W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which worked with town officials and the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries, and the University's Du Bois Center, on a celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the memorial created at the place where Du Bois spend his childhood at the home of his mother's family.

The event comes at a time when the town has woven the Great Barrington native into a fabric of annual celebrations and acknowledgement as its most famous native son, the African American co-founder of the NAACP, a scholar of the African American experience and human freedom, who was not without controversy for his late-in-life turn to communism.

On Friday, the celebration will begin at 1 p.m. at the Homesite with events that include speakers and a tree planting, and will continue through the afternoon at the Mason Library with exhibits and speakers, and into the evening at the First Congregational Church with a reception, music, dance and the passing and sharing of the Du Bois Legacy flame.

All will feature speakers including Pulitzer Prize-winner Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis and Guy Davis, the blues musician whose father, actor Ozzie Davis, had attended the original event.

In the 1960s, any honors of Du Bois were considered treasonous. An ideological war raged across Berkshire County, particularly in its newspapers, as groups planned the memorial and dedication event at his boyhood homesite. The objection was Du Bois' turn to communism in his later years.

But local officials were nervous. A legion of sheriff's deputies armed with riot gear and tear gas had encamped in the Select Board's office at Town Hall on the day of the dedication for what would later become a national landmark. The deputies had been bivouacked to Town Hall should a clash erupt between local ultra patriots, made up of mostly veterans groups, and black militants from New York and other cities. The FBI was involved, and a National Guard unit was on high alert, as well, and a single-engine U.S. Army aircraft did some aerial surveillance of the homesite off Route 23, where about 800 people, including celebrities and civil rights stars, had come for the dedication.

"We had arranged to meet any eventuality," then-Police Chief Emmett Shea said in an interview at the time.

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The anticipated violence never transpired for an event that was endorsed by Martin Luther King Jr. and a number of other celebrities, including William Shirer, author of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich."

But fierce local opposition flared from veterans and other groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Anti-Communist Affiliation of Housatonic. State Sen. George Hammond, of the Hampden-Berkshire district, said in 1968 that, "If a man changes his mind to communism, it discredits all that came earlier."

In a WSBS radio straw poll at the time, 78 percent of 114 callers said they were opposed to the memorial dedication. The Berkshire Courier newspaper said support of the memorial was "treasonous."

And in a 1968 letter to The Eagle, a Mrs. Robert Nielson of Stockbridge suggested opponents simply ignore the proposal, to make it go away.

"If we continue this running battle, we are inviting outside interference at a time when there are many willing to interfere. We are preparing a marvelous bed for radicals, kooks, agitators and other undesirables from outside."

But it was local officials who tried to shut down the permanent honors and dedication. First they used zoning laws. But in the end, none of it worked, and the state even investigated allegations of discrimination.

"How did that change occur?" asked Weinstein, about this half-century turnaround. "The old guard is gone. They were the impediments, and they were creatures of their time. In 1969 you had Nixon, you had the Vietnam War going, the communist purge. They all played into this paranoia. They were paranoid of the unknown."

But now Weinstein says that Great Barrington has planted Du Bois honors into its tradition, and the generosity is flowing from other quarters — the owner of the local airport offered parking there for those attending the event, and town police offered free traffic control.

"To take some ownership and handle controversy, and handle the bigness of this man, and say, `This is the kind of community we can do this with.'"

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


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