Ruth Bass | Step by step, Great Barrington embraces its most famous citizen

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RICHMOND — In the late 19th century, a black teenager named W.E.B. Du Bois graduated from Great Barrington High School to the approving applause of an audience that recognized the extraordinary talents of one of their own. In the mid-20th century, a vociferous group of Great Barrington residents protested any recognition of Du Bois by the town, creating an atmosphere threatening enough to bring in the FBI. In the early 21st century, a downtown park was commemorated in Du Bois' name, but two years later, a new generation of anti-Du Bois people succeeded in keeping his name off their brand-new elementary school. All this decade-by-decade emotion centered on Great Barrington's most famous, most distinguished, controversial native son.

Sometimes, when people back off from a debate, they create something so bland that no one can no longer get their teeth into the issue. It's too mushy. In this case, it was muddy, the solution being the Muddy Brook Elementary School naming. It's devoutly to be hoped that the brook itself is comelier than its name, a name that implies silt and snags — the very things that teachers try to dredge out of students' minds — rather than history or trout or babbling.

It wasn't even the best watery choice. The Housatonic flows right through Great Barrington and Stockbridge on its way to the sea, carrying a Native American name and, with or without PCBs, the affection of generations of Berkshire canoers, fishermen and kayakers. Konkapot Brook runs closer to the Berkshire Hills Regional cluster than Muddy Brook, and Chief John Konkapot was an original settler of Stockbridge. He reportedly persuaded his Mohican Indians that the road to survival involved converting to Christianity, which led to the arrival of the Rev. John Sergeant. The boundaries of Great Barrington also contain the Green River, Long Pond Brook, the Thomas and Palmer Brook and, best of all for regional coverage, the Williams River, which runs through all three participating towns. But Muddy was chosen.

Now comes a newcomer, Thomas Likarish, who is apparently paying no attention to the ingrown Berkshire idea that it takes a while for newbies to earn their town meeting speaking rights. How refreshing. He wants the three towns to discuss at town meeting his proposal that Muddy Brook become the W.E.B. Du Bois Elementary School. He generated a petition that's creating a town meeting article this year in Barrington. Lots of people would probably like to contribute to the cost of painting a new sign and stocking up on new stationery for the school.

What a relief that the Du Bois naysayers have apparently become a minority since socialist and real estate broker Walter Wilson stirred up a storm in the 1960s by trying to preserve the Du Bois homestead. He'd smile now on those who are celebrating the town's most famous son, a man who at various times expressed his misgivings about the community but who overall had deep roots in his childhood experiences. And a lifelong belief that education was the key to moving up and on.

Here's a quote from Du Bois' "The Souls of Black Folk":

"I was a little thing, away up in the hills of New England, where the dark Housatonic winds between Hoosac and Taghkanic to the sea Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil."

That veil, black on one side and white on the other, did not obscure the extraordinary intelligence of the "little thing," who was noticed by Frank Hosmer when he reached high school. Principal Hosmer enhanced the boy's school experience and, as Du Bois acknowledged later, steered him toward college prep classes. Hosmer and two other white men organized the financial support the young man needed for college. It does, indeed, take a village. Unfortunately, as we still see around the nation, it can take a century or more to get the attention of the village. Great Barrington can now take some pride in the town's long ago nurturing of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Ruth Bass is a former Sunday editor of The Berkshire Eagle. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.

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