Massachusetts home town of W.E.B. Du Bois comes to terms with its famous son

By Russell Contreras
Monday, November 8, 2010; 6:01 AM

GREAT BARRINGTON, MASS. - He's the most famous son of this quiet mountain hamlet in western Massachusetts. But until recently, people looking for signs of W.E.B. Du Bois's life and legacy in Great Barrington would have had a hard time finding them.

For decades since Du Bois's death in Ghana in 1963, the civil rights activist and scholar has drawn praise for his writings but scorn from residents upset that he joined the Communist Party, became a citizen of Ghana and often criticized the United States over race relations.

FBI agents and riot police guarded a park dedication to him more than 40 years ago. Efforts to name a school after him were blocked. Some residents saw him as the father figure of black radicalism, and they remained conflicted over his legacy and his relationship with the largely white town he often romanticized in writings.

But now, as Great Barrington prepares to celebrate its 250th birthday, supporters say Du Bois is finally getting his due.

His image will be featured in many of the town's birthday events, a portion of the river walk has been named in his honor, and the University of Massachusetts is embarking on a major restoration project of his boyhood homesite. In each case, the Du Bois honors came with no resistance.

Supporters says these new efforts, pushed by a coalition of black and white residents, are signs that the town is finally at peace with Du Bois.

"It's amazing what time will heal," said Rachel Fletcher, founder of the Great Barrington River Walk. "Many of those people don't even remember why they were even upset."

In the past five years, the new Du Bois Center has opened next to his wife's burial site and officials posted signs at the town entrance advertising it as his birthplace.

"He's everywhere in Great Barrington," said David Levinson, a cultural anthropologist and editor of "African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley." "I'm kind of comfortable where things are now. The resistance is not there anymore."

Born in 1868, Du Bois became the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard University. He was a polarizing figure, acclaimed for his commitment to civil rights and racial equality and maligned for joining the Communist Party late in life.

He wrote more than 4,000 articles, essays and books, many of which are now out of print or difficult to find. He also helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and remained an outspoken critic of racial discrimination throughout his life.

Many of Du Bois's writings and ideas continue to influence contemporary policy and thinkers. In the early 1900s, he posited that crime by blacks declined as they gained equality. And he described a "Talented Tenth" of the African American population that would rescue the race from its problems.

Shortly after his death, when supporters dedicated a Great Barrington park in his honor, a controversy erupted that drew actors, activists and elected officials from around the country. Federal authorities were called over concerns that the dedication would lead to violence, though it remained peaceful.

Since then, residents conflicted over Du Bois's writings and views have resisted almost all Du Bois-related events or projects.

- Associated Press

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