Great Barrington — Like most big ideas, this one started small. Daniel Klein, an author and philosopher who has lived in Great Barrington for more than 40 years, was surprised that no monument to the town’s most famous favorite son existed in a prominent location downtown.
To be sure, there are signs that W.E.B. Du Bois was born and raised here. There is the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington on Route 7 near the Big Y. It opened in 2006. And of course, there is the birthplace of Du Bois, known as the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site, on Route 23 on the way to Egremont. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington on Feb. 23, 1868.
The Housatonic River Walk also contains the Du Bois River Park. In addition, several Du Bois family members are buried in the Mahaiwe Cemetery, though Du Bois himself is buried in Ghana, where he lived out the last few years of his life. But a life-sized statue in a prominent downtown location has thus far eluded Du Bois and his admirers.
Klein and his wife Freke Vuijst have decided they want to find a site and commission a statue to honor the legendary civil rights leader and scholar — preferably downtown and on Main Street.
“Du Bois was a huge influence on thought in this country,” said Vuijst, a journalist and filmmaker originally from the Netherlands. “He co-founded the NAACP.”
“The timing is perfect,” added Klein.
So Klein posted a note on Facebook in which he asked his friends if he could “toss out an idea” — a statue of Du Bois in Great Barrington:
“Dubois was clearly the most celebrated resident in our history. His teachings and writings still resonate today. To honor and memorialize him seems absolutely appropriate.”
In an interview over coffee earlier this week, Klein and Vuijst said they were convinced that times have changed since an earlier attempt to honor Du Bois failed about 13 years ago.
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.
Spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Du Bois’ 100th birthday, a committee redoubled its efforts in 1968 to create a Du Bois memorial at the Du Bois Boyhood Homesite at what is now the known as the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site in Great Barrington. The effort, ultimately successful, nonetheless divided the public, and sparked great controversy in the news media, both locally and nationally.
See video below of the 1969 dedication of the Du Bois memorial in Great Barrington, courtesy W. E. B. Du Bois Library at UMass-Amherst:
And 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 structure 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 some residents calling it “racist” and one school committee member calling it a “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.”
“We’re not even trying to right a wrong. It’s that the time is right,” Vuijst said. “The stars are aligned.”
Thirteen years ago, conservative voices were more prevalent in Great Barrington than they are now. Randy Weinstein, who founded the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, agrees.
“Right now we have a Select Board and a town manager who are very pro-Du Bois,” Weinstein said in an interview. “We tried it one way from the outside in and that didn’t work. This is starting from the inside out.”
Indeed, Town Hall does seem inclined to favor Great Barrington’s most celebrated resident more than it has in the past. Du Bois was born on 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. In addition, last month the W.E.B. Du Bois Library at UMass-Amherst presented the town with a pair of Du Bois images from the library to be displayed in Town Hall for the foreseeable future. As far as anyone can remember, it is the first time Du Bois images have graced Town Hall. And one member of the Select Board, Ed Abrahams, is involved with the restoration of the former Clinton AME Zion Church, which Du Bois once attended.
It remains to be seen whether the effort to commission a statue of Du Bois will be a part of the birthday celebration or whether it will be more of an independent project. Klein and Vuijst say they are open to either.
But Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, who heads Multicultural Bridge and is working with the town on the 150th birthday celebration, told The Edge she is very much in favor of the idea of a statue and has been working with Klein and Vuijst on fundraising and other strategies. She prefers to fold the statue project into the birthday celebration.
“We are pushing to have a monument or statue and we’d like it to be downtown,” VanSant said in an interview. “This is a really important time with the 150th coming up.”
VanSant also noted the irony that, in an era when statues commemorating Civil War figures from the Confederacy are “being taken down,” Great Barrington residents are trying to put something up.
VanSant said the 150th committee, whose website can be found here, is trying to employ a “holistic approach” with “three branches of their work: number one is educating, then celebrating, then legacy.”
Some observers have told The Edge privately they’re concerned that the movement to commission a Du Bois statue is too top-heavy with white Americans, when it should be led by members of Berkshire County’s African American community.
They cite the recent experience of the movement to save and reuse the Clinton AME Methodist Church, which Du Bois occasionally attended, as an example of what can happen.
At a visioning meeting for that project about a year ago in the Mason Library, a group of African Americans in attendance questioned the racial composition of the panel leading the project. One of them branded a tactic used by a white fundraiser at the meeting as “disgusting and racist” and likened it to a slave auction.
But VanSant said she did not think it would be an issue this time around because “part of my work is making sure communities of color are involved on all levels.”
“I’m making a concerted effort and my staff is involved,” she added. “We’ve had a much more balanced representation in the beginning.”
VanSant, Klein and Vuijst told The Edge they would prefer that the sculptor who is ultimately commissioned to perform the work be an artist of color.
Wray Gunn, who heads the committee working to save and reuse the Clinton AME Church, told The Edge what happened with the church working group was “water over the dam.”
“We’re trying to get those people to come in with us now,” Gunn said. “We’re working and looking forward, not backwards.”
As for a location for the statue, Klein and Vuijst prefer a Main Street location. Two buildings come immediately come to mind, they say: the Mason Library and the First Congregational Church. Both are iconic Main Street buildings. Du Bois was a scholar and writer and the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, so the library is entirely appropriate. And he was a member of the First Congregational Church. Both have space in front of the buildings and are highly visible from passersby on Main Street.
Gunn believes the statue could be sited in a number of places, including Du Bois Park on the River Walk or at his birthplace or even at the Clinton Church.
“If it’s in the Main Street area, it would coordinate nicely with the library, the First Congregational and the Clinton Church,” Gunn said. “It would be close to all of those.”
As for the tumult surrounding the last effort to name the elementary school after Du Bois, there are some public officials who are still around from those days.
Steve Bannon has been a member of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee since 1997 and chairman since 1999. He’s also been a member of the Great Barrington Select Board since 2010. He acknowledged that the Muddy Brook experience was a difficult one but was reluctant to talk about it.
As for the statue itself, Bannon said he has an open mind but didn’t want to take a position on it until the matter comes before the Select Board.
Vuijst said she and Klein have been overwhelmed by the response to their idea about the statue that was posted on Facebook. She said the next step is securing a site and that her “dream is to have the site selected and secured by Feb. 23,” which is Du Bois actual birthday. The townwide celebration runs from Jan. 18 to the birthday itself.
She envisions the Du Bois statue as “public art.” Klein says he even thinks the statue could be good for the economy since it might attract additional visitors to town.
“This town nurtured him; this town sent him away to get a superb education,” Vuijst said. “This town did the right thing and now we need to do it again.”