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Terry Cowgill
Freke Vuijst and Danny Klein speak April 18 to the Great Barrington Historic District Commission about their proposal to place a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois in downtown Great Barrington. At right is commissioner Marilyn Bisiewicz.

Plans for statue honoring Du Bois in limbo after questions from Historic District Commission

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By Monday, Apr 22, 2019 News 17

Great Barrington — The concept of commissioning an artist to build a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois and place it in front of the Mason Library appears in limbo after the Historic District Commission declined to take any action on the proposal after a public hearing last week.

At its April 18 meeting, the commission heard from a Housatonic couple, Danny Klein and Freke Vuijst, who had proposed the idea in 2017 to honor the legendary scholar and civil rights leader who grew up in Great Barrington.

But there seemed to be some confusion about whether the library’s trustees had approved the proposal or not. The idea for the statue would have to be approved by the trustees, the Historic District Commission, and perhaps the selectboard, as well.

Patrick Hollenbeck at a Great Barrington Libraries board of trustees meeting in 2018. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Klein said he thought it was approved but HDC Chairman Don Howe insisted he had been told by a trustee that it was not. Library trustees Chairman Patrick Hollenbeck told The Edge that the trustees had approved the concept of the statue after a presentation from Klein and Vuijst last May. Click here to see an Edge story and video of the trustees’ meeting on which the unanimous vote took place.

“It was an advisory opinion that we gave because essentially we were told it was going to have to go through many different phases,” Hollenbeck said in an interview.

But Klein and Vuijst appear to be caught between a rock and hard place because it is very difficult to raise money for the project if they can’t tell donors exactly where the statue will be located. But the HDC doesn’t want to endorse the project unless a decision has been made on where to put the statue.

See video below of the Great Barrington Historic District Commission discussing the proposal to place a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois in downtown Great Barrington:

“We need to raise $80,000 to $100,000 from the Great Barrington community and [from] people all over the world who are interested in supporting this initiative,” Klein told the commissioners. “It is important for us, in order to start this fundraising campaign, to tell people where this statue is going to be.”

The proposal is being pursued by Klein and Vuijst as individuals. The proposal did not originate from the W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which was appointed last year to oversee several town events honoring Du Bois, though Vuijst is a member of the legacy committee.

Donald Howe is an architect who chairs the commission, the charge of which is to enforce the bylaws of the town’s historic districts, which were adopted at the May 1, 1989, annual town meeting. Click here to see the boundaries of the districts and here to see the bylaws themselves.

Howe was somewhat skeptical of the proposal, such as it was. Howe said he thought the symmetry was off since the concept Klein and Vuijst showed him depicted the statue of Du Bois sitting on a chair on the side of the front walkway opposite the book return.

“It’s sort of a strange comparison … a strange look,” Howe said. “I think it’s a weak spot for it. I envision it on the sidewalk as being more appropriate, which would be on public land, not on library land.”

Jim Mercer holds an image of a new rendering that shows Du Bois seated on a bench instead of a chair. At left is commissioner Pat Ryan. Photo: Terry Cowgill

A more recent rendering Klein and Vuijst submitted depicted Du Bois seated on a bench rather than a chair, which seemed to please most members of the commission.

Howe also questioned whether there was any direct historical connection between Du Bois and the Mason Library. Du Bois was born Feb. 23, 1868, in Great Barrington; left to attend Fisk University in 1885; and later became the first African-American to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

The First Congregational Church, which Du Bois attended as a child, raised the money to pay for his tuition at Fisk. Though Du Bois returned to town periodically, the Mason Library was dedicated in 1913, well after he had left Great Barrington.

“He had a stronger connection with the Congregational Church than the library,” Howe said. “They supported him and sent him to Harvard and Fisk.”

Klein explained that he had reached out to the church, but the interim pastor who replaced retired minister Charles “Pastor Van” Van Ausdall told him it would be best to wait until a permanent successor was named.

But commissioner Julie Fagan countered that there was a symbolic connection between Du Bois and the Mason Library.

“His entire life was built on reading and books,” Fagan said. “Everything he did was predicated on books and, had there been a library at the time, we might be having a different discussion.”

Members of the Great Barrington Historic District Commission consider the W.E.B. Du Bois statue proposal at an April 18 meeting. From left, Donald Howe, Patricia Ryan, Jim Mercer and Julie Fagan. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The library is about books,” agreed commissioner Patricia Ryan. Howe concurred and said the commission could potentially issue a certificate of appropriateness based on hardship.

“I’ve never been a hardship before,” quipped Klein, a humorist and author.

Commissioner Jim Mercer said he thought a statue honoring Du Bois was entirely fitting, given his stature in the community and in the world.

“I like everything you’re doing,” Mercer said. “I just don’t think we can act on this because we don’t have enough material that we need to act on it.”

In an Edge interview, Hollenbeck said it simply needed more discourse, more planning. He suggested Klein and Vuijst might want to start a foundation to raise the funds necessary to complete the project. Gifts to a charitable foundation would then be tax-deductible.

Such is the case with efforts in Boston to construct a memorial to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who studied there and received a doctorate from Boston University. King also met his future wife, Coretta Scott, while in Boston. Du Bois is widely viewed as laying the civil rights groundwork for much of King’s success.

The proposal for the Du Bois statue has not been without controversy. Not long after the library trustees endorsed the concept of the statue about two years ago, a group of veterans attended the next trustees meeting and issued statements of protest against placing on town property a statue of Du Bois, who joined the Communist Party late in his life before moving to Ghana.

Justin Jackson, assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, provided historical context about W.E.B. Du Bois at a June 2018 meeting of the Great Barrington Libraries trustees. To his right are Great Barrington Libraries trustees Patrick Hollenbeck and Kathleen Plungis. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Partly in response, Justin F. Jackson, a historian, author and assistant professor of history at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, wrote a three-part series of essays on Du Bois, describing him as “Undoubtedly the greatest African-American intellectual in U.S. history and an activist who pioneered the modern civil rights movement.” Click here to read the series.

Meanwhile, Mercer suggested Klein and Vuijst reach out to the town Historical Commission (which is separate from the Historic District Commission) and the Design Advisory Committee for guidance on placement, then return to the Historic District Commission.

“If you pull all those things together, you’d probably have a nice package you could move forward with,” Mercer said.

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17 Comments   Add Comment

  1. John says:

    While Mr DuBois certainly helped some people, in the end, Mr DuBois was closest to communism.
    Perhaps the statue can be located on a communist site.

    1. Ruairi says:

      Like a library

  2. W.C. says:

    Stop the madness. No DuBois, no statue in our town, also clean up the meeting room and remove that offending picture of DuBois.

    1. Shawn G. says:

      W.C.- that means toilet in most parts of the world (as in Water Closet).

  3. Lauren Clark says:

    Dear John, Ruairi and W.C.,
    Who are you mean spirited, small minded people? You always have something negative to say and you never stand behind your full names. If you so wholly dislike just about everything that is reported in this publication why do you even read it? Do you feel like outcasts in this peace loving community? Please, do your homework, open your hearts, and step outside yourselves for just a moment and look at the bigger picture.

    1. Lauren Clark says:

      Correction. Lauren Clark

    2. Ruairi says:

      Woooow, I was joking. I found it ironic that John, mockingly, suggested putting the statue on a communist site. Particularly when the proposed site is a publicly funded library that’s owned by and open to everyone.
      Of course there should be a statue to DuBois, the fact that there isn’t one already is a shame.

      1. Steve Farina says:

        I found your original comment to be humorous, Ruairi.
        I immediately caught the irony and sarcasm.
        Don’t hold your breath waiting for an apology for being called small minded and mean spirited, though. It seems that many in this “peace loving community” have trouble seeing their own anger (admittedly, even myself on occasion ), yet even more often fail to apologize or admit an error in attitude or wrongly held position.
        I had a mentor a while back who taught me that the use of the words “always” and “never” are trouble indicators that prevent open dialogue especially when dealing with people’s attitudes and actions. So I am always aware to never use them 🙂

      2. Lauren Clark says:

        I can usually discern a joke when I hear one-in print it is not as obvious. Glad you’re on the enlightened side.

  4. W.C. says:

    In what universe is it acceptable to remove existing legitimate monuments that reflex history ? Then to turn around and install monuments that promote a bastardised concept we do not need or appreciate. Perhaps Marilyn Bisiewics’s money would be of more use at the food bank or pantry ?

  5. Mrs. Biz says:

    That would be Bisiewicz with a z and I do give to food pantries….

    1. W.C. says:

      Sorry, correction met Freke Vuijst was the name that escaped me in the reply. Not Ms. Bisiewicz.

      1. Bill Ryan says:

        If we are removing pictures of people who praise communist dictators, or former KGB Colonels, perhaps we should start by taking down the pictures of our current president in all government buildings.

  6. Laura Clark Stedman says:

    I’m with the vets. Consorting with commies is a deal breaker. When Stalin died in 1953, Du Bois wrote a eulogy characterizing Stalin as “simple, calm, and courageous”, and lauding him for being the “first [to] set Russia on the road to conquer race prejudice and make one nation out of its 140 groups without destroying their individuality”. No statue, no nothing.

    1. Carl Stewart says:

      “…consorting with commies…” How quaint! But also interesting how the banner of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn is being kept unfurled here in azure blue Berkshire County by Ms. Stedman and her ilk. I hope that this antediluvian thinking is carried through with consistency, so put in those earplugs when the music of Pete Seeger is played and wear a blindfold anytime there is the possibility of viewing Picasso’s art, for both of these men were card-carrying members of the Communist Party

  7. Stephen Cohen says:

    Why do some people believe that all vets are opposed to honoring Dubois. Nothing is further from the truth. Dubois had flaws, especially his admiration for Stalin, but his life and works are remarkable and particularly important today. He was a towering figure in America, and richly deserves a statue in his home town. Knee-jerk reactions from those who believe that all vets are identical in their politics are an insult to veterans.

  8. Art says:

    I admit that I’ve not been deeply opinionated one way or another, and usually feel that erecting a statue of anybody is a bit over the top for me. That being said, considering the current political climate in our country and a “leader” who encourages hate and small mindedness, and the couple of over the top negative comments here, I’ve changed my mind. Hell yes. Erect that statue. Right now, it’s more about a community statement that people who speak out against injustice, bigotry, hatred and disempowerment should be celebrated. Is it slightly ironic that those who shout out that old bogeyman “communism” aren’t shouting as loudly about our country moving toward fascism?

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