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