Following more than a decade of public strife, Great Barrington, a small idyllic town in the Berkshires, has finally embraced hometown hero W.E.B. Du Bois, the iconic civil rights activist, scholar, and founder of the NAACP.
At the end of a two-and-a-half-hour Zoom meeting — in which dozens testified, mostly in favor of the proposed change — the Berkshire Hills Regional School District committee voted unanimously Thursday evening to rename the local middle school in honor of Great Barrington’s perhaps best-known native son.
Monument Valley Regional Middle School is now W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School, a symbolic though important gesture to the local activists who toiled for years to educate the region about the early civil rights pioneer’s life and legacy.
“To me, in this moment of ’Black Lives Matter,’ this was the action, right? We can put a lot of words up and hold signs, but this was a clear action that would stand for what I see as reparations in Great Barrington for past community hurts,” said Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and founding director of BRIDGE, a Berkshire-based nonprofit that provides cultural literacy and competency training.
In 2004, following the construction of a pair of brand-new elementary and middle schools, a bitter debate, which garnered widespread media attention, splintered the town of Great Barrington, according to the Berkshire Eagle, after historian Bernard Drew suggested naming one of the buildings after Du Bois, who was born in Great Barrington in 1868 and became the first Black man to earn a doctorate at Harvard in 1895. Opposition to the idea, led by local veterans, centered on Du Bois’ embrace of socialist politics late in life. In the 1950s, Du Bois eulogized Joseph Stalin and met with Mao Zedong. In 1961, at the age of 93, he joined the Communist Party.
“Back in 2004, in this community, it seems there was an ’us’ versus a ’them.’ ‘Them’ being the town itself and ‘us’ being the DuBoisians,” said Randy Weinstein, founder of the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, which abuts the Mahaiwe Cemetery, where Du Bois buried his son, daughter, and first wife. “Our town was polarized... and neither side was going to give an inch.”
At the time, according to School Committee chairman Stephen Bannon, the committee had already made the decision not to name the buildings after any person, living or dead. The schools were named after the surrounding geography instead.
But the controversy still stung Du Bois’s supporters, who felt the movement opposing Du Bois was steeped in racial bias. Great Barrington, with a population of less than 7,000 people, is nearly 88 percent white, according to Census data and roughly 4 percent Black.
“We know Du Bois is a global icon. We know of the trailblazing he did and how he broke ground with the NAACP and Harvard and everywhere else,” VanSant said. “All these truths are known and it’s still not good enough because of his communism and it’s like, people didn’t have the curiosity or the care to look into that or probe that or understand it better.”
Behind the scenes, VanSant, Weinstein, and others worked tirelessly to champion Du Bois.
Their efforts led to the formation of the town’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee, which Weinstein chairs, and a public celebration of Du Bois’s 150th birthday in 2018. Last year, they brought their campaign to rename the middle school after Du Bois to the three towns that make up the school district — Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge — and voters in all three approved.
VanSant was confident their advocacy would pay off at the School Committee meeting on Thursday. But earlier this week, she got wind of a petition with more than 250 signatures that urged the committee to oppose the name change.
On Wednesday evening, she fired off dozens of e-mails and social media messages to her network of friends and activists, asking them to write to the School Committee with their support. By Thursday, the committee had received more than 350 e-mails from community members, almost all in favor of renaming the school for Du Bois.
The School Committee meeting Thursday was unlike any in recent memory, according to district superintendent Peter Dillon. And not only because it was held over Zoom, with more than 200 people logging in to watch or participate.
“People spoke honestly and from the heart,” Dillon said. “I really think that meeting was remarkable and there were people on all sides of it, and folks on different sides made different kinds of arguments.”
“Small-town, New England-type town-meeting democracy, when it works, it’s extraordinary,” he continued, “and I think it really worked the other day.”
To VanSant, the School Committee’s decision was a proud moment in Great Barrington’s history, especially for the town’s children of color.
“Symbols means a lot,” she said. “Every day, that school will carry that name. Every piece of letterhead. Every child will say it. So there won’t be any more children going to the district, wondering if their identities are valued because there’s this icon they’re actually now appreciating instead of people stumbling upon it in college after they’ve left the area.
“It’s just a huge affirmation of belonging,” she said.