By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle
GREAT BARRINGTON — He was hailed as an anchor of intellect and free thought amid a sea of racial upheaval and red-baiting.
The U.S. government didn't like him when he was alive. And neither did town officials of yesteryear, after he had died.
But now W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington-born and raised, has his very own committee at Town Hall.
"We've really traveled quite some distance," said Randy Weinstein, executive director of The Du Bois Center at Great Barrington. "It's a milestone in this community."
The W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which Weinstein co-chairs, embarks on its first public meeting Wednesday evening, to organize before it begins work to its stated mission to "preserve and promote" the town native's legacy "as a scholar and activist for freedom, civil rights progressive education, economic justice and racial equality."
It's likely the first of its kind to honor Du Bois anywhere in the U.S., Weinstein said.
The committee's 12 members want to continue efforts, as part of a new town culture, that began last year on the cusp of the Du Bois 150th Festival celebration, in which UMass Amherst Libraries gave the town a print of Du Bois' birth certificate and a portrait that now hang in the Town Hall meeting room. Du Bois banners went up on downtown streetlights, and the festival stretched for several months with lectures, events and displays of Du Bois artifacts.
Born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Du Bois had attended Searles High School, and was the first African-American to attend Harvard University, with financial help from residents of the town. He wrote the first scholarly book about the black experience in America, and went on to prolific writing, then co-founded the NAACP.
His lectures about race and other topics placed him on the government's watchlist. Later he was investigated by the FBI. And his intellectual entanglements during the Cold War, and a conversion to communism in the years before his death, angered local residents, especially veterans groups.
This is when officials and residents fought attempts to honor Du Bois. The Du Bois Boyhood Homesite was eventually established as National Historic Landmark, but not without dividing the county. And even recently, a few voices, though growing ever dim, have revealed some ire toward the those who want to celebrate him.
But now the deal is done.
"We got a lot of applications," said Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, committee co-chair. "It's a diverse committee ... leading small town government at a really tricky time."
Community activists are working to pass local ordinances in the sanctuary city model in communities in the Berkshires.
A collection of different Berkshire grassroots organizations have come together with a very specific mission: get individual communities in the county to pass their own versions of a trust policy.
“A trust policy is a local ordinance to promote trust, safety, and inclusion for all people in a community by passing a local ordinance called a trust act or a trust policy to ensure that local police equally and equitably respect the rights of all members of the community, and specifically don’t work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target and deport undocumented immigrants outside of criminal cases," said Jeff Lowenstein. He's a community organizer for Berkshire Interfaith Organizing — or BIO — and a Berkshire native. “And I’m one of BIO’s representatives to the Trust Policy Partnership, which is a group that formed as part of the campaign to pass the Great Barrington trust policy last year, to working to pass these kinds of policies in cities and towns throughout Berkshire County.”
Lowenstein says the movement emerged from the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump administration crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the United States.