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David Scribner
An aerial view of the campus of schools comprising the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. In center is Monument Mountain Regional High School. In center left is Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, and above Muddy Brook is Monument Valley Regional Middle School.

Petition to rename regional middle school after scholar, civil rights advocate W.E.B. Du Bois to be on town meeting warrant

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By Tuesday, Feb 5, 2019 News 23

Editor’s note: This article has been revised to more accurately reflect Likarish’s role at Multicultural Bridge.

Great Barrington — The effort to rename a local middle school after a controversial scholar and civil rights figure is picking up steam, with a citizen’s petition taken out by a Great Barrington resident whose goal is to do just that.

Tim Likarish and his wife, Lily

The petition, filed by town resident Tim Likarish, would put before voters at the annual town meeting Monday, May 6, a resolution to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School after the legendary scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who was born and raised in Great Barrington.

Gwendolyn VanSant, who heads Multicultural BRIDGE, where Likarish volunteers, told The Edge the idea has been brewing in the racial justice program at Multicultural BRIDGE.

VanSant emphasized that the initiative is not related to the official town committee that she co-chairs along with Randy Weinstein, the W. E. B. Du Bois Legacy Committee. Rather, it comes in her capacity as founding director of Multicultural BRIDGE, a nonprofit that provides many services around multiculturalism and social justice causes. The legacy committee has planned and executed an elaborate months-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth.

“Right now, the middle school is just named after a road,” VanSant said in an interview. “We’ve been talking about this for a couple of years.”

VanSant said she and Likarish are not looking to revive the controversy of 15 years ago when an effort to name the new regional elementary school divided the community and took on a life of its own.

Randy Weinstein and Gwendolyn VanSant explain the Du Bois 150th Festival’s schedule of events to the Great Barrington Selectboard in 2018. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We’re not trying to create a big rupture,” VanSant said. “There has been a lot of healing since then.”

Weinstein, who directs the nonprofit Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, said he has not yet seen Likarish’s petition, but added that the “legacy committee would be interested in looking at it.”

“Anything promoting the legacy of Du Bois we generally look upon favorably,” Weinstein told The Edge.

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.

The last time an attempt was made to name a school after Du Bois, it created a firestorm of controversy. 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 regional schools it had just 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 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.”

And decades earlier, spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and on 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 known as the W. E. B. Du Bois National Historic Site on Route 23 west of Great Barrington. The effort, ultimately successful, nonetheless divided the public and garnered great media attention, both locally and nationally.

A drawing by Donna Drew depicting the Mason Library with a proposed statue of W. E. B. Du Bois on its lawn.

Plans are still in the making to commission an artist to create a statue of Du Bois to be placed in front of the Mason Library. The decision of the town library trustees to endorse the idea last year has angered veterans’ groups who object to the fact that Du Bois joined the Communist Party in his early ’90s.

VanSant said the current effort is an attempt to gauge the sentiment in the community, not only in Great Barrington but in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, the two other towns that comprise the Berkshire Hills Regional School District. Plans are also underway in those two towns to gather signatures for similar petitions.

“We’re going to try again and see of we can find a groundswell of community support,” VanSant explained, adding that she thinks the community has changed for the better since those days.

In an interview, Likarish said he has submitted his petition to town clerk Marie Ryan with 29 signatures, well more than the required 10. Likarish is a software developer who moved to Great Barrington two and half years ago with his wife. The couple had their first child last summer.

“Du Bois was a giant of his time,” Likarish said. “He has published well-known books and was a great intellectual. He co-founded the NAACP, and has received many accolades.”

In January 2018, members of Railroad Street Youth Project unveil the new W. E. B. Du Bois mural located in the alley between Railroad Street and the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

The proposed name change is consistent with the fact that Du Bois’ life is actually taught in the Monument Valley Regional Middle School curriculum. In addition, VanSant said the current name of the middle school is confusing. It is often confused with its sister school just up the road, Monument Mountain Regional High School.

Likarish said he was not around when the naming of Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School was proposed in 2004, so he cannot speak to whether the community has changed since then. He does like what he sees:

“Having attended the Du Bois festival, I saw a lot of excitement and interest around him. We would like to elevate his name. I’m excited to start a conversation around it.”

Likarish said he and others had a conversation with Berkshire Hills Superintendent Peter Dillon. Bridge was advised to demonstrate to the school committee that there is community support for the renaming effort.

“That’s why the petition,” Likarish said. “Having the community involved is part of the goal, as well.”

Steve Bannon. Photo: David Scribner

Steve Bannon, who chairs the school committee and is the only current member who was serving in 2004, said the decision on whether to take up and approve the renaming would be up to the committee. He said he has not decided whether to support the initiative.

Bannon said he does not sense that a significant change has taken place in the community in the last 15 years.

“Then again, we do have a different school committee,” Bannon added.

Bannon said he is not convinced that the annual town meeting is the best way to put these sorts of resolutions before voters. He would rather see them as ballot propositions in town elections, which are generally held in May.

“An election would be more representative,” he opined.


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23 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Sandra Rickards says:

    OMG !!! NO !!! Please don’t change Monument Mountains name….Is there no end to this crazy madness ?????

    1. Sandra Rickards says:

      Pardon Me…..I just noticed the name change was in reference to the middle school. But my question still stands, WHY ???

      1. Terry Cowgill says:

        The answer to your question is in the story. Please read.

  2. John says:

    There was great effort put in place to name the middle school in the first place. There were numerous factions that all wanted it named after the favorite person. It was a mess, and if I’m not mistaken a strategy was set in place to name it in a rather benign manner associated with the surroundings, rather than show favoritism, for any particular person that may be in vogue at the moment…
    While Dubois did some very good things for people, he also abandoned America as a communist.

    Please leave Muddybrook alone

    1. John says:

      Thank you Terry for the clarification.

      The point remains. Please leave the school names alone.

    2. Shawn G. says:

      No one is perfect. He was a great person who made significant contributions to our society. A hometown hero; first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard, and more.

    3. Sage Radachowsky says:

      He did not “abandon America” and capitalism is a system that keeps a majority of people in poverty and makes it so that I can work 7 days a week as a carpenter for the rich but not even be able to save a down payment to buy land or a house around here.

      Sorry but i fully and forcefully reject your McCarthyist slurring of Du Bois on those grounds. There is so much to the history but i am out of time because i am late to go work for the super rich of this county that is the epitome of capitalism’s dispossession and exploitation of common people.

      1. Jerry says:

        Sorry, Sage, but you are missing the point. Dubois may have contributed exponentially more to society than anyone else from Great Barrington but like a lot of people are pointing out, he neglected to show enough gratitude to the country that brought his people here in chains and gave them the opportunity to create the economic powerhouse we became without burdening them with the stress that money creates.

  3. Michelle Koubert says:

    I’m confused. Is the proposal to rename Muddy Brook Elementary or Monument Vally Middle School? I’m hearing and reading from various information resources conflicting information. Just need a clarification. Thanks!

    1. Terry Cowgill says:

      No, the petition calls for voters at town meeting to endorse the name change for the middle school. I hope I made that clear in the headline and the first two paragraphs.

      1. Michelle Loubert says:

        Yes, Terry, you did. But in town chatter, I’ve heard it is the elementary school. I just wanted to be clear on this. Thank you.

      2. Terry Cowgill says:

        Ah, I see. Thanks for the heads-up. The current chatter must be confusing the current situation with the first effort in 2004 to name the elementary school after Du Bois. I also address that in the story.

  4. Allison Nash says:

    Towns should honor their their famous sons and daughters. It is common practice to demonstrate that by naming a school, library, or public building after them. A good example was Bryant School in Great Barrington. Great Barrington should be proud of its role in the education of Du Bois. Renaming the school would not just honor Du Bois, it would honor those who came before and helped him on his way, and those who came after and continued his dream.

  5. W.C. says:

    Get over this DuBois nonsense. A silly idea we as a community need much less not more DuBois PR.

  6. David Rutstein says:

    A question for Terry and Steve: Since the BHRSD is composed of three towns, can a GB petition to change the name of one school at the next GB town meeting be legal without any confirmation of this from the other two towns?

    1. Terry Cowgill says:

      David, the Great Barrington vote will be strictly nonbinding — really advisory in nature. The final decision must be made by the school committee. As I also pointed out in the story, there are efforts underway in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge to replicate the Great Barrington effort.

  7. bobby houston says:

    PEOPLE – MANY boulevards across America were renamed Martin Luther King Blvd, BECAUSE it’s the big-hearted thing to do. DuBois was a genius, this was his home, and we are truly ‘small town’ if we find small-bore reasons to erase him from GB. America has already done quite enough to erase and ignore the contributions of our African-Americans. They made us rich; they enriched our culture. Can’t we honor our local hero in a civil, civic way?

    1. David Scribner says:

      Well said, Bobby. Exactly right.

    2. Steve Farina says:

      I agree, Bobby. And, if the only reason not to rename is because he joined the communist party…well, then what is the point of freedom?
      Does it mean that we are only free to choose that which is “commonly” accepted?
      Maybe we should name one school after Du Boise and another after some other local of relevance – maybe William Stanley. Maybe the new high school can be called “Jack Fitzpatrick Regional”.

  8. George G says:

    Some of the out-of-control comments above are a good demonstration of why it is better not to rake over these coals again. A compromise was reached years ago. Muddy Brook is not the most euphonious name that could have been chosen, but it quelled needless animosity and dissension. For those who seek to honor W.E. Du Bois, there are other less controversial ways to do so. For those who use the issue simply to shout their political views, there are other ways than a fight over a school name. We need to come together, not to wage more culture wars. I agree with John’s conclusion above: please leave Muddy Brook alone.

    1. bobby houston says:

      George – OR, we could stand up to bigots and honor the souls of our black folk. How about we learn to be proud of what makes us great. Truly great? And now cower to what makes us small.

      1. George G says:

        For what it is worth, my reading of the objections to using the DuBois name stem, in some cases at least, not from his race, but from his having become a Communist. One may disagree as to whether that is a valid ground for not naming a school for him, but it is not the racial bigotry which you blame. I don’t view coming to consensus as “cowering,” and I think your comment does not advance the dialogue. By the way, your use of the term “black folk” strikes me as patronizing, at the least.

  9. Howie Lisnoff says:

    While serving on the committee to mark the 150th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois’ birth, I learned many things about DuBois that I did not know. I reread one of his books and read another for the first time. I found that his letter to the newly elected President of the United States, John Kennedy, expressed DuBois’ commitment to democracy and equal rights for all.

    W.E.B. DuBois was a complex individual, activist, and scholar. Reading letters he wrote about Great Barrington, his love for the hills in which he grew up and received his early education is clear. He was one of few people who saw the problems about the environment when he wrote about the Housatonic River.

    DuBois was a champion of jobs for all people that allowed people to develop their full potentials. As a teacher, while earning his degree at Fisk University, the humanity of the man can be seen in the way he values the education and lives of his students.

    There is much debate around DuBois’ association with the Communist Party. It may be seen as a kind of idealism, but I think DuBois may have lost sight of some of that idealism in his support of Joseph Stalin after World War II. The Soviet Union became an enemy of the U.S. following the war and a reading of the history of that period offers insight into how that clash could have been avoided. The army of the Soviet Union defeated the Nazi regime on Europe’s eastern border and probably helped shorten the war in Europe for the Allies and prevented that war from coming across the Atlantic to the U.S. 

    But there still is Stalin, who by most accounts was a vicious dictator at home and relentlessly pursued his political opponents. There is no justification for the latter and it unfortunately needs to remain as a footnote to DuBois’ accomplishments for freedom and democracy in the U.S. 

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