Historic moment as Du Bois Legacy Committee kicks off in Great Barrington

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GREAT BARRINGTON — He was hailed as an anchor of intellect and free thought amid a sea of racial upheaval and red-baiting.

The U.S. government didn't like him when he was alive. And neither did town officials of yesteryear, after he had died.

But now W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington-born and raised, has his very own committee at Town Hall.

"We've really traveled quite some distance," said Randy Weinstein, executive director of The Du Bois Center at Great Barrington. "It's a milestone in this community."

The W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which Weinstein co-chairs, embarks on its first public meeting Wednesday evening, to organize before it begins work to its stated mission to "preserve and promote" the town native's legacy "as a scholar and activist for freedom, civil rights progressive education, economic justice and racial equality."

It's likely the first of its kind to honor Du Bois anywhere in the U.S., Weinstein said.

The committee's 12 members want to continue efforts, as part of a new town culture, that began last year on the cusp of the Du Bois 150th Festival celebration, in which UMass Amherst Libraries gave the town a print of Du Bois' birth certificate and a portrait that now hang in the Town Hall meeting room. Du Bois banners went up on downtown streetlights, and the festival stretched for several months with lectures, events and displays of Du Bois artifacts.

Born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Du Bois had attended Searles High School, and was the first African-American to attend Harvard University, with financial help from residents of the town. He wrote the first scholarly book about the black experience in America, and went on to prolific writing, then co-founded the NAACP.

His lectures about race and other topics placed him on the government's watchlist. Later he was investigated by the FBI. And his intellectual entanglements during the Cold War, and a conversion to communism in the years before his death, angered local residents, especially veterans groups.

This is when officials and residents fought attempts to honor Du Bois. The Du Bois Boyhood Homesite was eventually established as National Historic Landmark, but not without dividing the county. And even recently, a few voices, though growing ever dim, have revealed some ire toward the those who want to celebrate him.

But now the deal is done.

"We got a lot of applications," said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, committee co-chair. "It's a diverse committee ... leading small town government at a really tricky time."

By diverse, Hampton VanSant is referring to the five African-Americans on the committee, something both she and Weinstein say is unheard of in this town.

"The result is a real integrated community structure focused on celebrating our civil rights heritage through Du Bois and others," Hampton VanSant said.

Ed Abrahams, who is Select Board liaison to the committee, said this diversity is something special and unusual here.

"Diverse participation in town government is always good and something we're always looking for," he said. "In this community its hard to come by."

But there are still a few traces of Du Bois opposition left. Resident Patrick Fennell had asked to join the committee so that he could, ostensibly, thwart its mission. The board rejected his request.

But that brief episode at Town Hall prompted nary an eye roll. Times have changed.

"It's as if Du Bois is coming in seamlessly," Weinstein said. "There's no rant or rave about him — he's accepted."

Hampton VanSant said that, with this committee, the town has really risen to its 2012 designation by Smithsonian Magazine.

"It really makes Great Barrington the 'best little small town in America,'" she said.

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


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