Great Barrington — Chalk this one up to youthful enthusiasm. The town’s collection of images celebrating its most famous resident will grow.
At a presentation Friday (Dec. 15), one of UMass Amherst history professor David Glassberg‘s undergraduate classes came to Town Hall to unveil a poster project they’ve been working on concerning Great Barrington native son and pioneering civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois.
Five students in Glassberg’s Museums in Public History class had been working on the project for weeks, which Glassberg characterized as the students’ “final exam.”
They presented the design concept to an audience that included Dan Bolognani of Housatonic Heritage, Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, Town Planner Chris Rembold, Selectman Ed Abrahams, local historian Bernard Drew, River Walk founder and administrator Rachel Fletcher, and three members of a group attempting to restore the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church where Du Bois attended services as a child: Holly Hamer, Wray Gunn and Cora Portnoff.
“I think Du Bois is under-recognized in the U.S., but I’ve had a long standing interest,” Glassberg said in an interview. “He’s very well-known in Africa and Germany.”
Much of the impetus for the project came from the River Walk’s Fletcher, who had worked with Glassberg and his students before on other projects, including an 2012 exhibit documenting the life of Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, a black slave in Ashley Falls who was the first to successfully sue for her freedom.
As part of the Main Street reconstruction project of 2014-15, two River Walk kiosks were installed, one near the River Walk entrance next to the Rite Aid pharmacy and another at the intersection of Main and Church streets. At the former kiosk is a sort of “welcome to River Walk” sign. The latter kiosk is where the students’ work will ultimately be placed.
The River Walk ends at Du Bois River Park at Bridge Street, near where Du Bois was born. Fletcher liked the idea of a poster connecting the dots between Du Bois’ career and legacy, and the town of Great Barrington.
“I asked David if his class would be interested in doing that,” Fletcher said. “They had done some wonderful projects for us before.”
“It was a great opportunity to turn it into an educational experience,” Glassberg added.
There are five sections on the poster: birth and childhood, familial ties, civil rights activism, a return to Great Barrington, and lasting impact. Photographs and captions accompany each section and there is a scannable QR code to learn more about Du Bois.
After the students presented, they took comments from those in attendance including Drew and Fletcher, both of whom are very knowledgeable local authorities on Du Bois.
“All were impressed that the students developed a website to accompany the sign,” Glassberg explained. “The students handled themselves very well, defending the interpretive decisions they made without taking the criticisms personally or being defensive.”
“We’re very excited,” added Rembold. “They’ve done a great job compiling the history with relevant details of his life.”
Glassberg and Fletcher discussed the next steps, which involve forming a single local committee, consisting of a W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site steering committee and Clinton Church Restoration members, to coordinate interpreting Du Bois in downtown Great Barrington to the public. Glassberg said the committee would oversee the final design and fabrication of the sign as well as the video tour project that Bolognani has been working on through Housatonic Heritage.
Next year is the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’ birth. In his honor, the town and Du Bois organizations are planning a weeks-long celebration. In addition, earlier this fall, 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 there is talk of commissioning a statue of Du Bois on Main Street.
In response to the suggestions, the poster will be undergoing some revisions. At the kiosk at Main and Church streets, a replica of the “welcome to River Walk” sign farther up the trail sits as a placeholder awaiting the students’ revised work.
“It is remarkable that a relatively small community produced someone who was such a giant,” Glassberg said.