One hundred and fifty years ago, W. E. B. Du Bois was born a free black man in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. From those beginnings, he changed the world. For the anniversary of his birth, University of Massachusetts Press has released a new edition of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (page xx). In 1909, a few years after the book was originally published, W.D. Hooper, then Chair of the Department of Classics at University of Georgia wrote to Du Bois that “many of us feel most deeply the pathos of your own position.” Hooper tells Du Bois that “my skirts, at least, are clean” —that he has never wronged anyone of Du Bois’s race and has trained his children in respect, yet still he feels powerless, “I cannot break away,” writes Hooper. He asks Du Bois to look “as leniently as you can on feelings which have been made part of us, and we must labor together in all ways to lighten the gloom.”
Du Bois answers Hooper personally five weeks later, writing “you and I can never be satisfied with sitting down before a great human problem and saying nothing can be done. We must do something. That is the reason we are on Earth.”
A highlight of anniversary efforts has been with the people of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, an ambitious band of volunteers and organizations committed to lifting Du Bois to his proper place of prominence.
By the time Du Bois was born in 1868, “GB” as it is commonly known, was a gilded age getaway on the banks of the 150-mile-long Housatonic River, where big-city bankers and industrialists built summer mansions. It had typical New England roots, settled by colonists in the late 1600s after violent clashes ousted resident peoples. Its original inhabitants, the Mahican Indians, called Great Barrington Mahaiwe meaning “the place downstream.”
The sesquicentennial of Du Bois’s birth has inspired Great Barrington – “the place downstream” from the manufacturing metropolis of Pittsfield -- to embrace Du Bois anew. In addition to exhibits, performances, and colorful Du Bois banners lining Main Street, there are plans to illuminate his legacy in lasting ways throughout town, from naming streets to opening an interpretive center. Last fall, the Libraries helped officials display the first-ever images of Du Bois. The permanent exhibit “Let Freedom Ring: A Gallery of Du Bois Images” opened in the Town Hall Gallery this year.
The centerpieces of the exhibit are six enlargements of the original typewritten pages of Du Bois’s 1930 address, “The Housatonic River,” delivered for the annual reunion meeting of Searles High School from which Du Bois graduated 46 years earlier.
The Houstanic, he wrote, is the river of his boyhood, the one he swam across like “every real Great Barrington boy.” Du Bois decries that like many cities, Great Barrington has let its Housatonic become a sewer; he urges citizens to instead to be like Cambridge, with its parks along the Charles. Du Bois advises to go beyond mere beautification: “a river must be … the spiritual center, perhaps the very freeing of spirit which will come from our attempt…to restore its ancient beauty and make it the center of the town, of the valley, and perhaps who knows, of a new way of civilized life.” Taking care of the river is, to Du Bois, taking care of what connects us.
Great Barrington has always been the place downstream from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, whose early grist and lumber mills gave way to a century of wool industry dominance, and all of their associated effluents. The date of Du Bois’s address was around the time General Electric starting dumping PCBs into his beloved Housatonic. Like all change, cleaning the Housatonic has proved complicated and taken longer than many, including Du Bois, had hoped it would; the refusal to do nothing has made all the difference.
We salute the people of Great Barrington as they rediscover the rushing river of intellect that is their native son. Though complicated and a long time coming, the movement by the townspeople of Great Barrington is what Du Bois would have us do— taking care of what connects us all.
Director of Development and Communication
UMass Amherst Libraries