Bringing W. E. B. Du Bois Home Again

*Editor’s Note: This week we are publishing our recent online forum on W.E.B. Du Bois in recognition of the anniversary of his passing on August 27, 1963. 

Unveiling of the first of three murals to hang throughout downtown Great Barrington. The Railroad Street Youth Organization conceptualized, created, and painted each mural. (Photo: Whitney Battle-Baptiste)

The year 1968 was one of the most memorable in modern history. North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against the United States and South Vietnam. Assassin’s bullets silenced Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy in Memphis, Tennessee and Los Angeles, California, respectively. United States Olympic athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, heads bowed and fists raised in a Black Power salute made a powerful statement on the winner’s podium in Mexico City. Finally, the popular television show Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss between Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) and Lt. Nyota Uhuru (played by Nichelle Nichols).

Away from the world’s gaze, in a small, rural, and remote town in Western Massachusetts called Great Barrington, a grassroots movement was taking shape. As Amy Bass recounts in Those About Him Remained Silent, a group wanted to see the birthplace of W. E. B. Du Bois designated an official part of the United States’ historical landscape. They wanted to bring Du Bois’s remains home from his sepulcher in Ghana to the Burghardts’s burial place to reunite him with his first wife, Nina, and children: Burghardt and Yolande; all three are buried in the local cemetery.

Great Barrington was a place of awakening for Du Bois. It is here that he describes coming to understand what it meant to live “behind the veil” of race. He learned here that education enabled movement up and out of Great Barrington; movement not afforded to his kin without formal educations.

Du Bois describes Great Barrington in poetic form, “God love thee’ first home of my boyhood, Great Barrington, land of my fathers!” The town was a special place for him throughout his long life. He always wanted to find a way to re-settle back on the ancestral land of the Burghardt family. In 1928, on the occasion of his 60th birthday, a group of Du Bois’s supporters and friends purchased the deed for the house of the “Black Burghardts in Egremont Plain,” the home of Du Bois’s  youth. However, as a public intellectual with an active international presence, Du Bois could not afford the time for upkeep of a home and property that had long gone to seed.

Du Bois in 1911. (Photo: Addison N. Scurlock, National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons)

In 1967, Walter Wilson and Dr. Edmund W. Gordon purchased the property on Route 23, where the House of the Black Burghardts, Du Bois’s boyhood home, by then demolished, had once stood. These men, and those who supported them, saved a bit of Du Bois’s and Great Barrington’s history. A year later, this group formed the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Committee. As the movement remembering Du Bois was being born, little did the committee anticipate the battle ahead. Honoring a Black man accused of being a communist during the turbulent times of the House Un-American Activities Committee was controversial, to say the very least among the established and predominantly white civic engagement organizations of Great Barrington. After the aforementioned assassination of King, the tumultuous year of 1968 brought urban upheavals in predominantly Black cities across the nation. In this context, in the minds and imaginations of White citizens of Great Barrington, the emerging movement to support Du Bois—a man who once spoke of appreciation for art as propaganda; criticized a United States’ “democracy” that disenfranchised its most vulnerable citizens; analyzed communism as a useful political perspective; and predicted the decline and destruction of capitalism—was downright dangerous.

As a result, there were delays. There were debates in city hall over permits and laws. There were questions about the safety of the town. However, the Du Bois Memorial Committee and their supporters stood unwavering and determined. Finally, Du Bois’s supporters won the day. The open space of the W. E. B. Du Bois Park came to be on October 18, 1969.

The mid-Autumn day was cloudy and crisp—typical weather of the Berkshires at the time of the year. Over fifty people gathered to hear civil rights activist and actor Ossie Davis emcee the event. They also heard a dynamic keynote address by another civil rights activist and future Georgia state Senator Julian Bond. Supporters sat on blankets spread on the ground, or atop hay bales. Great Barrington was the birthplace of Du Bois, his love of life, and humanity. Detractors insisted on a police presence at the dedication of hallowed ground. Not surprisingly, the program went on without incident. After the event, the significance of dedicating the park resonated in the town for years to come.

Julian Bond in 1966. (Photo: Library of Congress)

In the past, tensions peppered conversations about Du Bois in Great Barrington. However, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, the town’s perspective has changed. A new generation has embraced the complexity of Du Bois, his life and his legacy. Residents no longer look upon his ties to communism and his critique of capitalism as dangerous and un-American. Instead, they look upon these commitments as intrinsically connected to his own worldview: that the state must ensure the welfare and safety of its people—regardless of race, color, religion, or creed.

As in times past, the United States is divided about issues of race and racism, state sanctioned violence at the hands of the police and the racially and class driven prison industrial complex. And, as in times past, the small hamlet in rural Western Massachusetts that nurtured W. E. B. Du Bois in his youth continues to be a flash point of engagement and activism as it was in the turbulence of the late 1960s. For example, the Clinton Church Restoration Committee has recently secured the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, the church home of W. E. B. Du Bois. It is transitioning to become a multipurpose community center and interpretive space to share the story of Black history in the Berkshires. The W. E. B. Du Bois Educational Series, sponsored in part by the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area brings national and international luminaries speak to the Great Barrington community. Young people are creating public art in the form of murals. Du Bois believed art could speak to the masses in ways other media could not. Members of the Railroad Street Youth Project under the direction of youth organizers Zufan Bazzano and Sophie Shron conceptualized, designed, and painted the first of these murals dedicated to Du Bois, with several more to debut over the course of the next few months.

Great Barrington, described by Du Bois as a village “by the golden river and in the shadows of two great hills,” has come alive again. A testament to the spirit, courage, and resiliency of Du Bois, his legacy shapes young people of Great Barrington; a legacy that resulted from sacrifice and tireless social activism, not unlike Robert Kennedy and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Correspondingly, young people are able to come from within and without “the veil” about which Du Bois lamented in The Souls of Black Folk to work, act, and live collectively. Although there is much more work to complete, artists, residents, scholars, and activists have begun to install W. E. B. Du Bois in his rightful place in our collective historical consciousness.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Whitney Battle-Baptiste

Whitney Battle-Baptiste is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her academic training is in history and historical archaeology and her research is primarily focused on how the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexuality look through an archaeological lens. Her first book, Black Feminist Archaeology (Left Coast Press, 2011), outlines the basic tenets of Black feminist thought and research for archaeologists and shows how it can be used to improve contemporary historical archaeology as a whole. She is also serving as the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Center at UMass Amherst. Follow her on Twitter @blackfemarch.