Great Barrington — This year marks the 150th birthday of perhaps the most famous figure in Great Barrington history.
The legendary scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois was born Feb. 23, 1868, so next year will mark what would have been his 150th birthday. In his honor, the town and Du Bois organizations are planning a weeks-long celebration.
Carol Connare, communications director of the University of Massachusetts Libraries, which houses the W.E.B. Du Bois Library, was on hand Tuesday morning to present the town with a pair of images from the library to be displayed in Town Hall for the foreseeable future.
Selectmen Ed Abrahams and Helen Kuziemko, executive assistant for town manager Jennifer Tabakin, were the only town officials on hand to accept the gifts, which consisted of framed images of Du Bois’ birth certificate and a photo, taken in the 1890s, of the civil rights leader with first wife Nina and young son Burghhardt, who died about six months after the photo was taken, said Connare.
Both are buried in the Mahaiwe Cemetery in Great Barrington. Du Bois was buried in Ghana, the western African nation where he had moved in 1961, two years before his death, to work on a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora.
Also on hand was Randy Weinstein, who founded the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington. It opened in 2008. Weinstein facilitated the gift of the framed images to the town.
“This is the first time the Du Boises have actually made it into Town Hall, which is a rather historic moment,” Weinstein said.
“This is the first evidence of Du Bois in Town Hall,” agreed Abrahams. “Better late than never.”
Abrahams said the photo of Du Bois and his family will hang permanently on the stairwell to the second floor of the building. The birth certificate will likely occupy a prominent space behind the conference table in the selectmen’s meeting room.
In May, a group of public officials and civic-minded individuals got together to plan the celebration of Du Bois’ birthday.
Du Bois and his legacy have had a long and complicated relationship with the town and with the overwhelmingly white Berkshires. Some are wary of his anti-capitalist views and his embrace of communism late in life.
In an incident that garnered much publicity, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee in 2004 declined to name after Du Bois one of the two new schools it had built. The building was named instead after a small watercourse, the Muddy Brook, that runs behind the building on Monument Valley Road.
The decision sparked outrage in the community, with one school committee member calling it “media circus.” But, as the Du Bois Center’s website makes clear, “There are at least five public schools named for Du Bois in multiple states, including California, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. His face and name twice appeared on United States postage stamps.”
But many local Du Bois supporters are determined to honor him anyway. In addition to the birthday celebration, Monument Mountain Regional High School last year launched the W.E.B. Du Bois Educational Series, which featured an impressive list of speakers, most of whom were scholars and activists. And of course, the $5 BerkShares note carries his photo.
Details of the 150th birthday celebration have yet to be released but it is expected to start in January.
See video below of Weinstein, Abrahams and Connare discussing the new images of civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois that will be displayed in Town Hall: