Our Opinion: Du Bois gets his due in Great Barrington

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the birth in Great Barrington of W.E.B. Du Bois, it's encouraging to see the community fully embracing this towering intellectual, civil rights activist — this native son.

A large, framed photo of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois will now hang permanently on a prominent wall in the stairwell of Great Barrington Town Hall. A large, framed copy of his birth certificate will likely be placed in the meeting room ("Town hall honors Du Bois' legacy," October 18). "This is the first evidence [of Du Bois] in Town Hall," remarked Select Board member Ed Abrahams, who accepted the two pieces on Tuesday from Carol Connare of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Du Bois Center Library.

It is sort of astounding that this honor took so long, a full 54 years after Mr. Du Bois' death, but Great Barrington has had an uneasy relationship with the legacy of Mr. Du Bois, who was born here in 1868 and wrote about it extensively and glowingly in later life, this town he called a "boy's paradise." The man who would grow up to proclaim education as the key to achieving social justice, was educated here in public schools, a graduate from Great Barrington High School, the only black student in his class. Townspeople raised the funds to send him to college. He buried his family here. Mr. Du Bois, who helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), continues to attract pilgrims from near and far to the site of his childhood home off Route 23. Some have been known to get out of their cars and kiss the ground. So what the issue?

It was his politics. Mr. Du Bois, who produced scathing criticisms of U.S. race relations and capitalist exploitation, claimed late in life to be a communist and was persecuted for it to the point of self-imposed exile in Ghana, where he died at the age of 95. His legacy languished on the local level, disparaged under a McCarthy era veil that lingered far beyond its freshness date. An opportunity to name a new school after him was sadly squandered.

These days, Great Barrington's sensibilities are not so easily offended. The schools have made a major push to place Mr. Du Bois in their curriculum. In the entrances to town, there's now signage marking Great Barrington as his birthplace. A huge mural of Mr. Du Bois adorns downtown. The tireless efforts of those who worked to establish the W.E.B. Du Bois Historic Site and the downtown walking tour triggered this transformation.

The town is clearly receptive to learning about Du Bois and embracing his legacy, and thankfully there will be plenty of opportunities to do so with the approach of the 150th anniversary of his birth. Following last year's Du Bois lecture series at Monument Mountain Regional High School, a UMass program is in the works to train Monument students to be docents at the Du Bois home site. And a series of events is in the works beginning January 15 in the lead-up to Du Bois' birthday on February 23.

Mr. Du Bois, whose peaceable and supportive upbringing in the Berkshires helped formed him to boldly engage with the civil rights and economic struggles of the day, has much to tell the world today. Hereby, we're all ears.


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