Looking back, looking ahead: Efforts to name a school after the legendary W.E.B. Du Bois
Great Barrington — Almost 15 years ago, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee considered, and ultimately rejected, a proposal to name its brand new regional elementary school after perhaps the region’s most celebrated academic and civil rights leader.
To some, it seemed like a no-brainer. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in Great Barrington; was the first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. from Harvard; and was a world-renowned scholar, writer and leader for social and racial justice. Du Bois was seen by many as a trailblazer who paved the way for Martin Luther King Jr. and was “woke” to racial injustice before it became fashionable. Du Bois was also the subject of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies by distinguished historian David Levering Lewis. Moreover, who better to name a school after than Berkshire County’s most legendary scholar?
But veterans groups and others mobilized in opposition to the naming attempt, objecting to Du Bois’ anti-capitalist views, the fact that he moved to Ghana and embraced of communism late in life, as well as a eulogy he gave for Josef Stalin. Still others argued that there were others more deserving of the naming honor, such as veterans from the town who gave their lives fighting communism in service to their country.
In the end, the opposition was too much for the school committee. The building was named instead after a small watercourse, the Muddy Brook, that runs behind the building on Monument Valley Road.
And decades earlier, spurred by the assassination of King and the 100th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth, 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.
Notables such as civil rights leader Julian Bond and actor Ossie Davis were present. Bond, one attendee said, “gave the speech of his life.” That effort, ultimately successful, nonetheless divided the public, and sparked great controversy in the news media both locally and nationally.
There have been other attempts to memorialize Du Bois in recent years. Notable among them was the months-long celebration last year of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth that featured an innovative exhibit and new mural designed and painted by the Railroad Street Youth Project. The mural essentially replaced one that was completed about 16 years ago, and repainted seven years later, on the south-facing cinderblock wall of Carr Hardware. That painting was removed in 2012 when the company had to perform renovation work on the building.
An effort is currently underway to create and place a statue of Du Bois in front of the Mason Library. The proposal from a Great Barrington couple, Danny Klein and Freke Vuijst, is currently under review and still in the planning stages.
Now another movement to rename different school building in Berkshire Hills is taking shape. Supporters of Du Bois are ramping up an effort to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School in memory of Du Bois.
The group, led in large part by Multicultural BRIDGE CEO and co-founder Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, organized petitions to be presented for votes at the annual town meetings this spring at the member towns of the school district: Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.
The petitions, which asked for voters to endorse the renaming of Monument Valley Middle School after Du Bois, passed overwhelmingly by a show of hands in Great Barrington and comfortably in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. The Great Barrington petition was filed by Tim Likarish, a volunteer at Multicultural BRIDGE. The Berkshire Hills school committee will have the final say.
See video below of the lively discussion preceding the vote to endorse renaming Monument Valley Regional Middle School after W.E.B. Du Bois at the Great Barrington annual town meeting May 6, 2019, in the Monument Mountain Regional High School auditorium:
In 2004, with construction wrapping up on its new regional and middle schools, the Berkshire Hills school committee took up the idea of naming its new elementary school on Monument Valley Road after Du Bois.
In some ways, taking up another controversial issue was the last thing the school committee needed. In the preceding years, it had to deal with of closing its community schools, not only the Searles Middle School and the Housatonic School in Great Barrington, but the Stockbridge Plain School and the West Stockbridge Village School. That was a very contentious time, as residents fretted over the loss of their community schools and, with them, the partial loss of their identities.
As an aside, before Monument Mountain Regional High School opened in 1968, Searles Middle School was Searles High School. Du Bois graduated from the former Great Barrington High School in 1884 as valedictorian.
Then-Superintendent Donna Moyer raised the issue at a school committee meeting in June after hearing suggestions from members of the community who wanted to name a school after Du Bois. Also among the options the school committee considered was not naming a school after any individual, Berkshire Eagle reporter Ellen Lahr reported.
At that meeting, a small group that included local historian and longtime Great Barrington resident Bernie Drew made a pitch to the school committee in favor of naming the new elementary school after Du Bois. Drew, a frequent Edge columnist, is the author of the seminal historical reference book, Great Barrington: Great Town.
“We were told a school shouldn’t be named for someone identified as being from Great Barrington as it might overshadow individuals of merit from the other two towns that belong to the region,” Drew told The Edge. “The recent town meeting votes from Great Barrington, West Stockbridge and Stockbridge allay that concern.”
The Eagle, where Drew writes a regular column, seconded Drew’s suggestion, thundering in a June 27, 2004, editorial that Du Bois is the town’s “most famous and accomplished native son” and that reluctance to embrace his legacy can likely be attributed to his embrace of communism late in life or “perhaps because of the color of his skin.”
On July 17, 2004, Drew wrote a column for the Eagle in which he noted that the town had a habit of naming schools after people. William Cullen Bryant, the noted poet and journalist after whom Great Barrington’s Bryant Elementary School was named, “couldn’t wait to leave” town in 1825, in part because he found it “intellectually unstimulating.” The high school next to it on Bridge Street was named after Edward F. Searles, whom Drew described as “arrogant, self-centered interior decorator” who, he had told the school committee earlier, “left town in a huff over having to pay his property taxes.”
Du Bois, on the other hand, “adored his hometown” and “wrote about it fondly in three autobiographies and countless newspaper columns.” Before heading to Ghana in self-imposed exile, Du Bois returned in 1961 to Great Barrington for the last time in order to bury his daughter Yolande. On Du Bois’ gravestone in Ghana are the words “Born in Great Barrington.”
“It would be wonderful if Du Bois were a warm cuddly figure. He’s not,” Drew wrote. “He was impatient. He was controversial. But to dismiss all that he achieved in his first 90 years because of what he did in his last three is a disservice not only to the man but to an entire race.”
In the ensuing months, letters to the editor—pro and con—poured in to the Eagle. One of them was from Rachel Fletcher, founding director of the Housatonic River Walk, where the Du Bois River Garden Park was established near his birthplace to honor the great leader who was, in his own words, “born by a golden river.” Fletcher said her group was never able to formally approach the school committee.
“What was most disturbing to us was not the decision but that we were never given the opportunity to present our case,” Fletcher said in an interview. “We were definitely told that the building committee was where the decision was being made.”
Fletcher also cited an organized campaign to smear Du Bois and blame him for sentiments he expressed that were similar to what other luminaries such as Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger had also said.
“There was a campaign to disparage Du Bois that was very organized, not only local but federal, as well,” Fletcher said. “He was singled out as being the really despicable person when others were saying the same thing.”
Randy Weinstein, who now runs the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, also penned a letter in which he wondered if vandalism of the graves of Du Bois’ wife and son at the Mahaiwe Cemetery was related to “a heated exchange of angry letters.”
Another local historian and Edge contributor, Gary Leveille, said most controversial figures in history “evoke emotional responses from people,” though those same people should remind themselves that important historical figures are often flawed. He described Du Bois as a “brilliant man, far ahead of his time.”
“But he grew weary that his efforts to achieve equal rights for black Americans remained elusive,” Leveille told The Edge. “As he became elderly, despite his immense intellect, he was manipulated by leaders in the Soviet Union and Communist China into making some—in hindsight—foolish statements.”
Still, Leveille said Du Bois’ comments, taken in full context, are not terribly surprising. It is important to remember, for example, that, during World War II, the Soviet Union was our ally.
“Like all humans, Du Bois made some errors in judgement, but I think he should be cut some slack,” Leveille explained. “His impressive, long list of achievements far outweigh a few poor decisions.”
Veterans and others still object to this day. One of those who raised concerns 15 years ago remains opposed to the naming of any school after Du Bois today. Housatonic resident and Marine Corps veteran Andy Moro has organized a MoveOn.org petition against the current effort to name a school after Du Bois. The petition has 249 signatures with a goal of 300. Moro, who also chairs the Republican Town Committee, does not see any softening of sentiment against Du Bois over the last 15 years.
“I have not moved an inch on it and the group of people I went with [in 2004] have actually gotten stronger,” Moro told The Edge.
Last year, a group of town veterans, including Moro and Charles Plungis, expressed their disapproval to the town library trustees of the aforementioned plans to commission a statue of Du Bois and place it in the front of the Mason Library on Main Street.
See video below. On June 14, 2018, library trustees listen to veterans and other residents discuss a proposal to place a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois in front of the Mason Library in Great Barrington.
Drew has higher hopes for the success of the current effort, in part because, “The conversation has moved from a few people making a plea at a modestly attended school committee meeting to a wider arena.”
Lahr, the former Eagle reporter who covered not only the Du Bois naming effort but the closing of the community schools that preceded it, told The Edge in an interview that she agrees that circumstances have changed since 2014–15.
“It might have simply been controversy fatigue,” Lahr said of the school committee’s decision against naming the elementary school after Du Bois. “Or perhaps an overabundance of caution.”
Lahr advised against too much caution this time, adding that: “The record is pretty clear about Du Bois and the contributions he made. I appreciate and understand why people are concerned. But when we decide to take the safe route, the opportunities for civic education fall by the wayside.”
Berkshire Hills school committee member Steve Bannon has chaired the committee since the late 1990s. He told The Edge he plans to raise the issue in the fall when it will have the full attention of both the public and the committee.
Though in 2004, as it still does today, the school committee has the final say in any renaming effort, 15 years ago, the matter was passed on to the school building committee, which had taken the lead in orchestrating the construction of the $29 million regional and middle schools.
Bannon said, while the school building committee was indeed tasked with making a recommendation on the proposed naming of the elementary school, the ultimate decision was made by the school committee, which, after a lengthy discussion, voted 6–4 Jan. 18, 2005, to name the new elementary school after the Muddy Brook, a small watercourse that runs behind the new building.
The naming of the elementary and middle schools school were the only items on the agenda. Bannon voted to name it Muddy Brook. The Edge has obtained a record of the meeting. Click here to read the minutes, which include a verbatim transcript of the deliberations. The meeting lasted more than 100 minutes. The motion to name the new middle school “Monument Valley Regional Middle School” passed unanimously.
Some school committee members expressed a reluctance to name the schools after any individual, notwithstanding the Great Barrington’s history of doing so. Several names were suggested for the elementary school, including Beartown Elementary, Mountain View Elementary, Berkshire Hills Elementary and Mountainside Regional Elementary School.
Fletcher said she is unsure if public sentiment has changed. In addition, it is unclear what the cost would be. There would surely be signage to change, new stationery and legal filings with the state.
“A lot more time has passed and there is a younger generation,” Fletcher said. “Time really does blur a lot of your anger, so I’m very optimistic unless there is an expense attached to it.”
Bannon said he is not sure if the community has changed since those days: “I’ve received phone calls and emails for and against it,” Bannon said. “I don’t know if the community has changed. But I’m willing to wait and hear what everybody says.”