Mass. town makes peace with Du Bois, a native son

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by Russell Conteras

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. (AP)—He’s the most famous son of this quiet mountain hamlet in western Massachusetts. But until recently, people looking for signs of W.E.B. Du Bois’ life and legacy in Great Barrington would have had a hard time finding them.

NativeSon
NATIVE SON—A mural in downtown Great Barrington, Mass., honors African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. As the town prepares to celebrate it’s 250th birthday, Du Bois, one of its most famous and controversial native sons, is being included in it’s history and promotional material. (AP Photo/Shana Sureck)

For decades since Du Bois’ death in Ghana in 1963, the civil rights activist and scholar has drawn praise for his writings but scorn from residents upset that he joined the Communist Party, became a citizen of Ghana and often criticized the U.S. over race relations.

FBI agents and riot police guarded a park dedication to him more than 40 years ago. Efforts to name a school after him were blocked. Some residents saw him the father figure of Black radicalism, and they remained conflicted over his legacy and his relationship with the largely White town he often romanticized in writings.

But now, as Great Barrington readies to celebrate its 250th birthday, supporters say Du Bois is finally getting his due.

His image will be featured in many of the town’s birthday events, a portion of the River Walk has been named in his honor, and the University of Massachusetts is embarking on a major restoration project of his boyhood homesite. In each case, the recent Du Bois honors came with no resistance.

Supporters say these new efforts, pushed by a coalition of Black and White residents, are signs that the town is finally at peace with Du Bois.

“It’s amazing what time will heal,” said Rachel Fletcher, founder of the Great Barrington River Walk. “Many of those people don’t even remember why they were even upset.”

Born in 1868, Du Bois became the first African-American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. He was a polarizing figure acclaimed for his commitment to civil rights and racial equality and maligned for joining the Communist Party late in life.

He wrote more than 4,000 articles, essays and books, many of which are now out of print or difficult to find. He also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and remained an outspoken critic against racial discrimination throughout his life.

Many of Du Bois’ writings and ideas continue to influence contemporary policy and thinkers. In the early 1900s, he posited that crime by Blacks declined as they gained equality. And he described a “Talented Tenth” of the African-American population that would rescue the race from its problems.

Shortly after his death, when supporters dedicated a Great Barrington park in his honor, a controversy erupted that drew actors, activists and elected officials from around the country. Federal authorities were called over concerns that the dedication would lead to violence, though it remained peaceful.

Randy Weinstein, director of the 5-year-old Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, said most of the residents who fought efforts to honor him have either died or softened their views.

Weinstein said his nonprofit center draws lectures, films and panel discussions on Du Bois with few—if any—complaints.

“In the past, every time Du Bois was on the front page of the Berkshire Eagle, it was because of a controversy,” Weinstein said. “Now, it’s because of some new dedication or honor, and no one bats an eye. We’re like, ‘Sure. What else is new?’ I think that’s great.”

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