School- and street-renaming efforts underway to honor Du Bois in Great Barrington
GREAT BARRINGTON — A street, a statue, an annual festival, a school — and this is just the beginning.
These are some projects underway to solidify the legacy of African-American scholar and civil rights architect W.E.B. Du Bois.
First, a school's name might be changed.
A committee is forming to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School for Du Bois, and plans to put the proposal on the Berkshire Hills Regional School District's School Committee agenda before the end of the school year, according to Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, co-chair of the town's Du Bois 150th Festival committee.
Naming a downtown street for Du Bois is another possibility, as is a statue in a prominent place.
These and other proposals are about to land on the town Select Board's table, after Hampton-VanSant and her co-chair, Randy Weinstein of the Great Barrington Du Bois Center, came to the board Monday.
Board Chairman Sean Stanton said he thought "Du Bois Street" to replace Bridge Street had a nice ring to it.
"It's visible, highly traversed," he said, noting that there are plenty of streets with bridges.
Most board members, and Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, voiced gratitude for the work done by the committee so far. Some suggested bringing new proposals forward.
Du Bois was born and raised here, and longed to return in old age. He tried, but his key role in the nation's turmoil over race and injustice prevented it. The NAACP founder's entanglement in controversy, as he waged ideological war, made his legacy something many in town wanted no part of.
"I feel that under your leadership the town of Great Barrington has really taken a turn," Hampton-VanSant said to the board.
Hampton-VanSant said the festival events and the support of town officials has helped in "repairing DuBois' legacy and undoing hurt in the community."
"Something has really changed ... that's a big shift ... " Weinstein said.
It's taken about 50 years. In 1968, work to dedicate a memorial in his honor set off a vicious debate that set sail in local newspapers and divided the town and even the county.
In 2004 there was another relapse upon an attempt to name Berkshire Hills' new elementary school for him.
All the bitterness was blamed, in part, on veiled racism in the form of anti-communism. In 1961 Du Bois, 93, was so frustrated by state of civil rights he joined the American Communist Party, which supported free healthcare for all, among other things.
That year he moved to Ghana to work on the Encyclopedia Africana, and that sealed his fate with many residents in this New England town, which like most of America at the time, was permeated with anti-communist Cold War propaganda.
But now the Du Bois banners that had gone up on Main Street for the festival will likely go up every year, and even be borrowed by other towns. Hampton-VanSant, who with the committee and Carol Connare of the Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst Libraries said Pittsfield wants to use them this summer to honor Du Bois and other African-Americans.
Philadelphia, for example, is honoring the Du Bois 150th with a yearlong celebration. Hampton-VanSant later said there is good reason to keep the Du Bois honors running permanently here. She said the Du Bois celebrations in February had brought people to town from around the country.
"Du Bois is ours — he's Berkshire County," she said. "Great Barrington could put itself on the map as a social justice mecca. Especially the way our country is right now. We need to hold him, and hold him up."
Du Bois Festival events, photos and articles can be viewed on the committee's website: dubois150th.com.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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