A Birthday Celebration for W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois, Atlanta University, 1909*
By Kathryn Matthews
“One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder….”—W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
This month, the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail (AAHT) pays tribute to one of the most prominent African American leaders of the 20th century: William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois (1868-1963).
Born February 23, and raised in Great Barrington, Du Bois was a ground-breaking sociologist, prolific author, and outspoken civil rights activist, who helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and, as editor, guided its magazine, The Crisis. He was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance and is considered the father of Pan-Africanism. He was also a vocal environmental activist, whose causes included the Housatonic River.
Until recent years, however, few people—even those who live in Great Barrington—knew that Du Bois came from—and had a lifelong affinity and love for—the Berkshires.
Du Bois Walking Tour
● The W.E.B. Du Bois Birth Site (Walk 100 yards up Church Street; to the right): The house no longer exists, but a bronzed plaque marks the location.
● Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church (9 Elm Court): First founded as a society in 1870, of which Du Bois was once a member, the building, which opened in 1887, is the oldest Black church in the Berkshires. As a teenage reporter for the Springfield Republican and New York Globe, Du Bois frequently wrote about the Clinton community. Now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, Clinton has been instrumental in promoting Black history and the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois.
● Great Barrington Town Hall (334 Main Street): As a young, local correspondent for the New York Globe, Du Bois covered meetings here .
● First Congregational Church (251 Main Street): One of four churches that assisted with Du Bois’ college tuition.
● Mahaiwe Cemetery (South Main Street, Route 7 at the corner of Silver Street): An historic market denotes the burial site of Du Bois’ wife, Nina, and his children, Burghardt and Yolande.
● The W.E.B. Du Bois Mural (Off Railroad Street; Taconic parking lot): First painted by young artists from The Railroad Street Youth Project in 2003, this mural, which depicts Du Bois’ life, was revised and repainted in 2010.
● The Boyhood Homesite (At the junction of Route 23 and Route 71; Open May - Oct, 413.528.3391): Du Bois’ maternal ancestral home and where he lived from the ages of 2 to 6.
In large part, this was because of the politics of the 1950s and 1960s, says Rachel Fletcher, founder and co-director of the AAHT and a founder of Friends of the Du Bois Homesite. Despite Du Bois’ many accomplishments, he was viewed in his later years as a Black radical for his justifiably scathing criticism of U.S. race relations and for his association with various left-wing causes, which drew the attention of the FBI. In 1961, at the age of 93, Du Bois took a final political stand by joining the Communist party, and, a year later, moved to Ghana, where he died in 1963.
Du Bois’ leftist politics overshadowed his scholarly achievements, turning him into a controversial figure, whom, mainstream America—including his hometown—eschewed. But the 21st century residents of Great Barrington—an eclectic mix of locals, weekenders, retirees and younger people—are receptive to learning about Du Bois, says Bernard Drew, a local historian who has authored several books on African American history, including Dr. Du Bois Rebuilds his Dream House (Attic Revivals Press, 2006).
This change in attitude may also be attributable to the efforts of the AAHT, whose mission is to celebrate trailblazing black Americans—the ordinary and the famous—of the Upper Housatonic Valley and to preserve important African American sites in the Berkshires and northwest Connecticut.
The town has also rediscovered its native son through an annual Du Bois birthday celebration, hosted since 2001 by Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, where Du Bois attended meetings as a boy. “The black population in Great Barrington is small, just 3%, but Clinton’s tribute is a well-attended event, drawing a diverse audience (approximately 80% of whom are not black) of locals and visitors from New York and Boston,” says Fletcher. This Saturday, February 19th, at 2pm, Clinton A.M.E. Church hosts a Du Bois gospel birthday tribute. Free, and open to the public, the program features the Women of Faith Ensemble, a music ministry of St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield, followed by refreshments.
The month-long AAHT 143rd Du Bois birthday celebration honors him as an educator. “He is regarded as one of the most important intellectuals that America has ever produced,” says Fletcher.
From an early age, Du Bois believed that education was key to achieving social justice. At a time when most students, irrespective of their race, left school after the eighth grade, Du Bois attended Great Barrington High School—the only Black student in his class—graduating at the age of 15. The community supported his educational endeavors: when Du Bois wanted to go to Fisk College, a black liberal arts college in Nashville, four churches helped pay for his tuition. After time spent teaching in the rural South, he decided to pursue advanced studies and, in 1895, he became the first African American to receive a Ph.D from Harvard.
He became a professor at Atlanta University, where he taught history and economics between 1897 and 1910, later returning in 1934 to head its sociology department for 10 years.
Though he died on another continent, Great Barrington remained in his thoughts throughout his life, says Fletcher, adding: “He loved the New England landscape and culture. His first wife and two children are buried here, and he had a deep emotional connection with his maternal ancestral homesite, where he lived as a young boy.”
Though the house no longer exists, the Boyhood Homesite represents sacred ground to Du Bois’ admirers. Fletcher recalls one visitor from Farleigh Dickenson, who came to Great Barrington and, literally, kissed the ground where Du Bois lived.
In that pilgrim’s eyes, says Fletcher, “Du Bois was only a hero.”
W.E.B. Du Bois 10th Annual Birthday Celebration
Clinton African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
9 Elm Street, Great Barrington,
Saturday, February 19th: 2 - 4 p.m.
Free; RSVP required 413.229.2668
Friends of the Du Bois Homesite: 413.528.3391
*Special Collections and Archives, W.E.B. DuBois Library, University of Massachusetts Amherst
For a complete schedule of Du Bois birthday celebration events in the Berkshire region, click here.