WGBY Connecting Point
The town of Great Barrington is hosting the W.E.B. DuBois Legacy Festival this month to honor the legacy of the civil rights leader. Recently, some residents in town have proposed re-naming the Monument Valley Regional Middle School after Dubois. But the proposal has seen some backlash in the community. Multicultural Bridge CEO Gwendolyn VanSant sat down with Carolee McGrath to share why she supports the name change.
Phil Holand } Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — “Being Black in the Berkshires” was the title of a panel presentation sponsored by Multicultural BRIDGE on the evening of Monday, February 11, at St. James Place. A capacity crowd of 40 mostly white South County residents heard four panelists discuss black life in the Berkshires and relate some of their own experiences as people of color in a region where black faces are few (African Americans make up about 3 percent of the total population of the Berkshires).
The gathering was a follow-up to last September’s forum on the same theme in Pittsfield, but this time in the more affluent – and whiter – South County. “There is an imaginary line between North and South County,” said Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County NAACP and a Pittsfield resident who was born and raised in the city. “It passes right through Guido’s,” he added (to nervous laughter), referring to the food emporium’s northern location on the Pittsfield / Lenox line.
BRIDGE stands for “Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education,” and the four panelists embodied those ideas in their own professional and personal lives. Besides Powell, panelists included educator and community activist Shirley Edgerton, Dr. Eden-Renee Hayes, Dean of Equity and Inclusion and Associate Professor of Psychology at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and Alfred Enchill, District Aide in State Sen. Adam Hinds‘ Berkshire County office – another son of the Berkshires – who moderated the event as a private citizen. BRIDGE educator Stephanie Wright, St. James Liaison Jane Burke, BRIDGE Board Co-Secretary Ari Cameron, and Powell provided welcoming remarks.
Hannah Van Sickle } The Berkshire Edge
Pittsfield — Wray Gunn grew up in what he calls a “heavily segregated” neighborhood in Henderson, North Carolina. His family, which consisted of three boys, lived next door to a white family, also with three boys. On Saturdays, it was not uncommon for the six friends to meet at the movies. Despite separate entrances—Gunn and his brothers used the rear entrance while their neighbors used the front door—the boys created a common ground of sorts in the balcony of the theater where, if each trio of brothers sat at the partition, they could enjoy the movies together. This anecdote of Gunn’s is but one of many voices featured in “Their Stories: Oral Histories from the NAACP,” currently on display at the Berkshire Museum. The exhibit, a collaboration of the Housatonic Heritage Oral History Center at Berkshire Community College and the Berkshire chapter of the NAACP, documents the stories of individual African-Americans in the Berkshires.
Visitors are invited to explore the history of African-Americans in the Berkshires through compelling, contemporary stories from today as recorded by leaders from the local African-American community and the NAACP Berkshire chapter; original portraits by photographer Julie McCarthy bring to life the incredibly rich history of African-Americans in the Berkshires throughout the past 200 years. An illustrated timeline highlighting significant events in the history of the African-American experience in the region, complement the stories and photos. In 1800, the Berkshire County population was 33, 885; the Black population was 494. By 1840, these numbers swelled to 41,745 and 1,333 respectively.
“In my school …we were very few,” recalls Evelyn Pratt. “You could count them. The principal called one of the Black brothers in there and they were told, ‘Don’t ask any white girls out.’ They would not allow that at North High School … I was thinking, as they say, ‘stay in your lane.’” These anecdotal accounts of growing up in the Berkshires, and elsewhere, are balanced by events with more regional and national significance. For instance, in 1865, the year slavery ended in the United States with the passage of the 13th Amendment, Frederick Douglass lectured in Pittsfield. Interestingly enough, slavery was abolished in 1783 in Massachusetts—through a judicial interpretation of the state constitution—thanks to a crusade led by Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman. In 1868, the year the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified—guaranteeing equal protection under the law to all citizens, including Blacks, to whom citizenship was granted—W. E. B. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington; he would later go on to become the first Black person to receive a doctorate from Harvard, and co-found the NAACP in 1909—the Berkshire County chapter was organized in Pittsfield in 1918.
Optimism and faith permeate many of the messages: “Always try to help: if you can help someone, as you pass along the way, then you can live in the world and not be in pain,” reflects Magdalene Adams in a paraphrase of one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speeches. She adds, “You have to have patience to see wisdom and faith come alive.” Adams served as the president of the local chapter of the NAACP in Pittsfield when it was reactivated in 1983. The following year, Stephanie D. Wilson graduated from Taconic High School and went on to become a NASA astronaut; when she went into space in July 2006 as a crew member of the Space Shuttle Discovery, she requested that James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” be played as the wake-up call for astronauts. Portions of that song—along with the lyrics to 200 other popular songs, not to mention books and poetry—were composed while simultaneously working against discrimination in the early quarter of the 20th century.
“I feel like I’ve lived into being an African American woman,” says Gwendolyn VanSant. “In a way, I was avoiding it as a young scholar wanting to be acknowledged as smart and capable just because I am, not because I was the Black girl in the room. It’s very different trying to fit in rather than being honored for my intrinsic value as a human being.” This powerful sentiment is balanced by two women on the exhibit’s timeline: the first, May Edward Chinn, was born in Great Barrington in 1896; she went on to be one of the first Black women to become a medical doctor. The second, Margaret Hart of Williamstown, became the first Black graduate of the State Teachers College of North Adams in 1935; she went on to become the first Black teacher in Pittsfield.
The Berkshire Eagle
As Great Barrington celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of W.E.B. Du Bois, it is apparent that a town that was slow to embrace the remarkable legacy of its native son has now done so. That process would perhaps be complete if Great Barrington and the Berkshire Hills School District undid a wrong from 14 years ago that in retrospect was the last vestige of the town's reluctance to accept its link to Mr. Du Bois and honor that connection.
The Berkshire Eagle
Trailblazers, by definition, forge ahead and alone into the unknown, breaking a path for others to eventually follow. Such is the case with Great Barrington's (now) favorite son, W. E. B. Du Bois, who fought for racial equality and dignity when such a battle earned him the enmity and disdain of the white American power structure. Meanwhile, his leftist political leanings and civil rights activism earned him harassment from Cold War-era law enforcement.
Heather Bellow | The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — It's yet another move to bring a native son's legacy home after a long exile born from a lingering Cold War hysteria.
A citizen's petition filed with Town Hall last month is asking Great Barrington voters to consider whether they would support renaming Monument Valley Regional Middle School to W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School.
The renaming idea to honor the African-American scholar, writer and early civil rights leader is percolating outside the town's official W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, but will likely find support within it, noted Chairman Randy Weinstein.
Petition to rename regional middle school after scholar, civil rights advocate W.E.B. Du Bois to be on town meeting warrant
Terry Cowgill | The Berkshire Edge
Great Barrington — The effort to rename a local middle school after a controversial scholar and civil rights figure is picking up steam, with a citizen’s petition taken out by a Great Barrington resident whose goal is to do just that.
The petition, filed by town resident Tim Likarish, would put before voters at the annual town meeting Monday, May 6, a resolution to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School after the legendary scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who was born and raised in Great Barrington.
Gwendolyn VanSant, who heads Multicultural BRIDGE, where Likarish volunteers, told The Edge the idea has been brewing in the racial justice program at Multicultural BRIDGE.
VanSant emphasized that the initiative is not related to the official town committee that she co-chairs along with Randy Weinstein, the W. E. B. Du Bois Legacy Committee. Rather, it comes in her capacity as founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a nonprofit that provides many services around multiculturalism and social justice causes. The legacy committee has planned and executed an elaborate months-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth.
“Right now, the middle school is just named after a road,” VanSant said in an interview. “We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years.”
VanSant said she and Likarish are not looking to revive the controversy of 15 years ago when an effort to name the new regional elementary school divided the community and took on a life of its own.
“We’re not trying to create a big rupture,” VanSant said. “There has been a lot of healing since then.”