The little corner of Massachusetts that nestles against the borders of New York and Connecticut in the Southern Berkshires is the site of much history to do with slavery and civil rights.
Until fairly recent years, though, not many local people knew about that history. It is possible that they didn’t want to know.
The small town of Great Barrington there, my hometown, was also the hometown of W.E.B. Du Bois. He grew up there, went to school with white children, and maintained a lifelong relationship with his roots here in the “Black Burghardt” family, as he called it. His first wife, infant son, and grown daughter Yolande are buried here, in the Mahaiwe Cemetery next to a little complex that houses Randy Weinstein’s Du Bois Center and North Star Rare Bookstore.
Does “North Star” sound familiar in the annals of the struggle for equal rights for African-Americans? It should; it was the name of Frederick Douglass’s abolitionist newspaper. Not only a metaphor for the escape from slavery, Polaris was also a literal guide to the thousands of slave refugees who made their way to non-slavery states and Canada on the Underground Railroad.
Randy knew about Du Bois from his earliest childhood thanks to Rebecca Alexander, the black woman who was his friend, nanny, and parental figure until the age of 17 while his parents were working. Rebecca, a granddaughter of slaves, told him lots of stories, including stories about Du Bois. Randy dedicated his book, Against the Tide, to her in 1996 and named his daughter for her.
Randy eventually worked at a residential treatment center, starting at the bottom and working his way up to director. The majority of youths he worked with were black and made tough from living in inner cities. For many of them, the treatment center was the last option before confinement. He found a way to get through to them by using history – their history – to educate and impart a positive self-image.
It was what we call coincidence, but possibly meant to be, that Randy wound up in Great Barrington. It must have seemed like coming full circle for him to be living in the birthplace of the activist, NAACP co-founder, newspaper editor, philosopher, and author Du Bois.
Randy sought to commemorate him and, almost nine years ago, established the bookstore and center next to the cemetery that he considers sacred ground. He used credit cards to open the center and is still paying off the debt, but “it’s a gift that Great Barrington has earned,” he said, for finally opening up to, and embracing, its native son. Randy was instrumental in getting signs put up at the main borders of the town declaring it Du Bois’s birthplace.
“One of my goals in opening the center was so that the name ‘Du Bois’ didn’t have to be controversial,” he said, hoping that enough exposure would divert overt hostility.
And that has mainly happened, but it wasn’t always that way. The controversy began in the 1960s when two men, one black (Dr. Edmund Gordon) and one white (Walter Wilson), purchased the land on which had sat Du Bois’s childhood home on Route 23 in Great Barrington. Dr. Gordon was a professor of psychology at Columbia University and National Research Director of Project Head Start. Mr. Wilson was a land developer who had spent time as Southern Secretary of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In the time leading up to the commemoration of the site in the late 1960s, townspeople were divided on the notion of honoring Du Bois, ostensibly because of his late life membership in the Communist Party and his acceptance of Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation to live and work in Ghana.
When the site was dedicated in October 1969, actor Ossie Davis was the emcee and Georgia legislator Julian Bond, who had come out of the Atlanta chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), was the keynote speaker. Du Bois’s widow attended, as did playwright William Gibson (“The Miracle Worker”). Local residents Ruth Jones and Frederick Lord were there as incorporators. The FBI was also there, because who knows what mayhem a group of peaceful people gathered in a woody clearing on an autumn afternoon might get up to?
As I walked the path to the homesite recently, I had to wonder why I was not at the ceremony that fall day. I was aware of the controversy; I know that I and my peers, who opposed the Vietnam war, derided the logic of granting Du Bois his full measure of respect because of the Communist angle. We certainly talked about racism in our “Contemporary Affairs” class and, when a leading local member of the John Birch Society spoke to our class, I got into a shouting match with him that my schoolmates egged on until the man’s face was purple with rage. So why were we not encouraged to witness history that day? What was more important than the opportunity to hear Julian Bond in person, to be part of history in our very own neck of the woods?
Well, when I figured out exactly where I was, I felt sorrow and anger for my 17-year-old self. I was a cheerleader; it was an October Saturday afternoon. There was a football game and my on-again, off-again boyfriend was a team member. It might even have been the same afternoon when he broke my heart, not for the first or last time. The anger’s gone, but I still feel some sorrow for missing the historic opportunity.
I moved away from Great Barrington for many years, and when I returned in the early 2000s, Du Bois was once again the subject of controversy. Two new schools were to be built and a local resident suggested that one be named after Du Bois. It seemed a no-brainer, and the School Committee at first agreed, but later flip-flopped with transparent excuses. Was it because of racism or anti-Communism? The committee’s turn-around brought criticism from far beyond Great Barrington, and also derision as one of the schools was named “Muddy Brook.”
By this time, the homesite had been donated to the University of Massachusetts and it was being excavated. Over the next several years, a cadre of local people, including Randy, the late Rev. Esther Dozier of the AME Zion Church, Wray Gunn and Elaine Gunn, kept Du Bois’s name in the forefront with activities and speakers. The homesite now has a proper trail leading to it, with plaques and pictures replicating Du Bois’s journey from Great Barrington along it. The River Walk along the Housatonic River in the center of town, near his actual birthsite, is dedicated to him, and the greater community has a map of all places in the county associated with slavery, black Civil War veterans, and other hallmarks of the march toward freedom.
You can visit the Du Bois Center online, but you’re in for a bigger treat if you visit in person. Randy has a wealth of historical knowledge about much more than W.E.B. Du Bois. He is also an expert on Ulysses S. Grant and is working on a book of commentaries about Grant’s writings.