Life of Yolande Du Bois Williams Irvin, granddaughter of W.E.B. Du Bois, celebrated at ceremony in Great Barrington
About 100 people gathered closely around the Du Bois family’s resting place, sheltering each other as best they could from the frigid wind and the driving snow. Before unveiling the covered grave marker, a few family members made some comments.
Irvin’s son, Jeffrey Peck Sr., peered at the crowd through the snow, remembering his mother’s presence.
“No matter how old I get, I’ll always be her baby boy,” he said.
Irvin, the only granddaughter of Great Barrington native and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois, died Nov. 15, in Fort Collins, Colo. She spent much of her 89 years continuing her grandfather’s work in education, civil rights and community building.
Irvin wished to be buried where much of her family rests, in the Mahaiwe Cemetery.
W.E.B. Du Bois buried his 2-year-old son, Burghardt, in that cemetery in 1899. There, he buried his first wife, Nina, in 1950. He returned to Great Barrington one last time, in 1961, at age 93, to bury his only daughter, the mother of Yolande Du Bois Williams Irvin.
Irvin usually insisted on being called by her nickname, Du Bois, as all her family and friends referred to her. And she always referred to her grandfather as “Gran’Pa.”
The celebration of Irvin’s life, organized and sponsored by the Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups through Education, or Bridge, started at the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, part of the town’s weeklong celebration of her grandfather’s life (his birthday is Feb. 23).
In attendance were several generations of the Du Bois family, as well as friends and colleagues from Houston, where Irvin’s son resides. Bishop James Dixon II, of Houston’s Community of Faith Church and president-elect of NAACP Houston, also was there.
Several of Irvin’s family members, as well as other friends and admirers, spoke of her joyful relations with seemingly everyone that she met.
Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO of Bridge and vice chair of the Great Barrington Du Bois Legacy Committee, explained that late in her life, Irvin asked her son, Jeffrey Peck Sr., to be sure she is buried at her family’s gravesite.
“This decision came late in her years when she acknowledged … the way in which our town was finally embracing her grandfather,” VanSant said.
Deepika Bains Shukla, head of the Springfield U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Irvin set her on her career path.
“Dr. Du Bois [Irvin] inspired me to enter into a career to work on civil rights,” Shukla said. “So, I am deeply grateful to be here and to be a part of this celebration.”
Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, noted that Irvin always was outgoing, and friendly, to all.
“I feel like she never met a stranger, and her friends often became members of her extended family,” he said. “Imagine if everyone did this, what a better world this would be.”
Michael Curry, NAACP national board member and chair of the board’s Advocacy and Policy Committee, said he spent much of his youth trying to understand why people were treated so differently because of the color of their skin, and noted that the teachings of Irvin and her grandfather helped to set him on the path of correcting issues of inequity.
“The work Yolande did was the essence of her family’s history, a history of service,” he said.
During the reflections on Irvin’s life, she was described as a guide and mentor to many young people and someone who purposely set out to teach at a predominantly African American school to continue with what her grandfather had started.
Her family said she served as a mentor to many and that she demonstrated concern for her students, their families and their communities. She particularly placed emphasis on physical and mental wellness.
And she developed an acute fondness for the Ford Mustang, of which she owned several and wasn’t bashful about driving a bit too fast from time to time.
Near the end of Irvin’s days, her son, Peck, said that a nurse told him: “I come to work looking forward to seeing your mother because she brought a bright spot to my day, every day that I came in.”
“That’s my mom,” he said.
Her friend, Dr. Mary Nell Morgan, recalled their 35-year friendship.
“We had great fun all the times we would get together,” she said. “I love her and I miss her more than words can say. May her soul rest in peace — her job has been well done.”
Irvin’s grandson, Jeffrey Peck Jr., said he spent the past five years getting to know her, and frequently talked on the phone with her.
“She could talk for a long time,” he said. “I’m deeply grateful she was able to share her life. I’m so proud of my grandmother; you could never imagine. I deeply love her.”
Irvin graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, where her mother taught.
After graduating high school, she accompanied her grandfather to the International Youth Conference in Germany, which she remembered as a highlight of her life. She attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and finished earning her bachelor’s degree at New York University. She earned her doctorate in psychology at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
In 1988, she joined the faculty of Xavier University of Louisiana, in the psychology department. As with her grandfather, it turned out to be her life’s work.