It’s about time that I report on the conflict over whether or not to commemorate the most famous citizen in this small town’s history, the African-American scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois.
If you were to visit Great Barrington today, on Presidents’ Day Weekend when it is full of skiers and second-home owners from New York, you’d think it a sophisticated place, with dozens of sleek restaurants and shops and East Mountain providing a picturesque backdrop. I remember the shock, only a couple years’ back, the first time I saw someone using a cellphone on Main Street, but it’s now a common sight (watch out though, not all services work). In spite of the surface gloss, however, there are deep divisions amongst the groups that now make up the voting community.
Little Willie sledded down the hill outside on snowy February days a hundred years ago: “For recreation we played games: “marbles,” hi-spy,” “duck on a rock,” and “Indians.” We went mountain climbing and explored caves. We swam, and coasted the long hill from far up Castle Street, across the railroad tracks down to Main Street. Most of the children used to skate; but not I for two reasons: skates cost too much, and mother was afraid of the water.” (This photo was taken from high up Castle Street, where Du Bois would set off.)
Du Bois has been controversial here in recent months after a movement began to name a new school after him–quite reasonably, as he is the most eminent graduate of this school district, one of the leading intellectuals of the 20th century, and also someone who dearly loved the town and region. There was considerable resistance on the part of the School Committee (on which I used to serve) and no support from local officials. After a number of stormy meetings, the Committee chose instead to name the school “Muddy Brook.”. Now there’s an effort to get Church Street, where Du Bois was born, named after him, and David Levinson, who is writing a book about the AME Zion church Du Bois attended, hears that the police and the veterans’ are organizing to fight this. The selectboard is divided on the issue. They’ve done something that’s becoming more common when there’s a truly controversial issue: they are making it a ballot question instead of an item on the warrant for town meeting in May. This means there’ll be no open discussion.
Du Bois wrote that he learned about democracy as a teenager in his hometown of Great Barrington in the 1870s and 1880s, and his stories echo some of the conflicts we see today. I’m reminded of what an old-timer said to me after one of the first town meetings I attended: “In here, this is democracy,” he said. Then, sweeping his arm towards the rest of the planet, he added, “Out there, that’s just a republic.” Here’s what Du Bois had to say.
“From early years, I attended the town meeting every Spring and in the upper front room in that little red brick Town Hall, fronted by a Roman “victory” commemorating the Civil War. I listened to the citizens discuss things about which I knew and had opinions: streets and bridges and schools, and particularly the high school, an institution comparatively new. We had in the town several picturesque hermits, usually retrograde Americans of old families. There was Crosby, the gunsmith who lived in a lovely dale with brook, waterfall and water wheel. He was a frightful apparition but we boys often ventured to visit him. Particularly there was Baretown Beebe, who came from forest fastnesses which I never penetrated. He was a particularly dirty, ragged, fat old man, who used to come down regularly from his rocks and woods and denounce high school education and expense.
“I was 13 or 14 years of age and a student in the small high school with two teachers and perhaps 25 pupils. The high school was not too popular in this rural part of New England and received from the town a much too small appropriation. But the thing that exasperated me was that every Spring at Town Meeting, which I religiously attended, this huge, ragged old man came down from the hills and for an hour or more reviled the high school and demanded its discontinuance.
“I remember distinctly how furious I used to get at the stolid town folk, who sat and listened to him. He was nothing and nobody. Yet the town heard him gravely because he was a citizen and property-holder on a small scale and when he was through, they calmly voted the usual funds for the high school. Gradually as I grew up, I began to see that this was the essence of democracy: listening to the other man’s opinion and then voting your own, honestly and intelligently.” (Du Bois, W. E. B. (1968). The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois. New York: International Publishers, pp. 91-92.)
Note: David Levinson is working on a history of the Clinton African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Great Barrington. The church was founded by local Black citizens and recent arrivals from the south in the 1860s. Du Bois was involved in the church as a teenager and wrote a great deal about it in newspaper columns. The church has been the center of the Black community in southern Berkshire County for nearly 150 years.
Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and occasional scholar who also writes about how women gain and wield power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a research associate of the Fairbank Center at Harvard, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and founder of the Train Campaign. She was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, Read Karen’s occasional dispatches from the frontlines of international publishing at Karen's Letter on Substack, and follow her on Twitter etc @karenchristenze.