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Prologue to Greatness: W.E.B. Du Bois and Great Barrington

Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis delivered a speech during the Du Bois 150th Birthday Celebration. Du Bois at age 95 was more radically unorthodox than virtually any other engaged intellectual of the 20th century. The real problem was really the manipulation of race in the service of wealth.

United States Postal Service 1992 Black Heritage series stamp, honoring Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.,United States Postal Service

In this month of emancipators Washington; Lincoln; and Frederick Douglass; we gather together here in Great Barrington to honor native son William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born this twenty-third day, a Sunday, 150 years ago on Church Street. The birth certificate reads William E. Du Boise, “colored,” issue of Alfred Duboise and Mary (no maiden name given), whose February 5th nuptials in the nearby village of Housatonic the previous year had been duly noted in the *Berkshire Courier.* Alfred Du Bois, a Union Army veteran who gave his birthplace as San Domingo, Haiti, departed in murky circumstances soon thereafter, leaving wife and newborn in the tenuous care of Alfred’s Burghardt in-laws. Most of what is known of these early Great Barrington years comes from “Willie” Du Bois himself, as his family and the townspeople knew him.

Willie recalled being “greatly impressed” by Charles Taylor, who died soon after volume one of his *History of Great Barrington* was published in 1883. Very likely, the old scholar talked shop with the young scholar; but the fact that African- Americans are invisible in Taylor's rich chronicle tells us much about the times, the milieu, and the races.  Willie was certainly not invisible, though, as he scurried from home to school to chores and back.  As the hard slog to survive ground down his mother Mary Silvina and the other Burghardts, it had the reverse effect on him. Willie developed a compensating sense of adolescent self that would become more portentous and embracing in the coming years. "I very early got the idea," he would tell the interviewer from Columbia University’s oral history project "that what I was going to do was to prove to the world that Negroes were just like other people." At fourteen, his contributions in the New York *Globe*, a black weekly published by the militant Timothy Fortune, foretold Du Bois’s success in this regard.

Du Bois left Great Barrington at age seventeen, returning during the following four score years only infrequently, and always for brief stays: memorably, in late May of 1899, when he and new wife Nina came to bury their baby son Burghardt in Mehaiwe Cemetery; then again in early July, fifty years later, to bury his Nina in Mehaiwe; and to Mehaiwe again for the last time with the remains of daughter Yolande before self-exile in Ghana in October 1961. But the importance of the Great Barrington period, its imprint upon all that Du Bois grew to be, was deep, and certainly singular. His compelling prose re-creations of this insular town, the times, the races, and of his own family and himself there are landmarks in American letters. Fifteen years after leaving, the village prodigy had transformed himself into the awesomely credentialed Doctor Du Bois of Harvard University and Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm Universitaet---distinguished scholar and cosmopolitan traveler. Still, it had been here in this placid, kindly place “by a golden river in the shadow of two great hills” (Du Bois’s words) that his sense of identity or belonging was spun out between the poles of two distinct racial groups-- black and white--and two dissimilar social classes--lower and upper--to form that double consciousness of being he would famously describe at age thirty-five in *The Souls of Black Folk*.

There were actually three Great Barringtons, and the largely Catholic white newcomers were pressing against the door of domestic service, a challenge coming just as the Burghardt farms on Egremont Plain were less able to compete with produce shipped by river and rail from afar. From Du Bois's recollections and a culling of town-hall records, a reasonable estimate would fix the number of African-American families in the region at less than thirty, a few of them, like the Thomas Burghardt who worked for the Kellogg family, were substantial property owners.  Most were Burghardts, with a smattering of Crawfords, Freemans, and Pipers, although a small influx of freed slaves from the South was just beginning. "The color line was manifest," Willie has written, "and yet not absolutely drawn." The old African-American families that ventured out of farming preferred personal service, and, at least until the 1870s, tended to have the pick of gentler jobs as domestics, barbers, stewards, and coachmen.

Black and white Great Barrington coexisted civilly, even affectionately, but the two seldom commingled except on Sundays and in town meetings. By the late 1870s, although Willie and some of his immediate family continued to worship in the Congregational Church (previous generations had been Episcopalian), the religious and social life of the black community found its pulse in the little African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME Zion) church founded by freedmen and women from the South. W.E.B. Du Bois sensed early that he was something of a curiosity to the white townspeople because of his light color and the long locks which changed to crinkly texture by the time he was four.  He was well aware of the whites' curiosity by the time he entered public elementary school.  But if his being physically different "riveted attention" upon him, he was fortunate in long being able to ignore Great Barrington's muted racism (even when he dimly recognized it). First had come an awareness of class distinctions. He had told himself that race, in the large sense of generalized and dismissive attitudes about his people, had played only a small part in his elementary school experience.

Had he not become the "favorite" of "stern and inflexible" Miss Cross, his first primary teacher?  Had he not been cheered on by the leading citizens as he advanced year after year--the sole black boy in the school--more quickly than most of his white classmates?  Had he not always felt welcome in the homes of even his wealthy classmates and frequently been complimented by their parents for setting a good example? In the early, innocent, Horatio Alger years, then, Willie believed that the differences between people were the result of industry or ability--and sometimes physical courage. "I cordially despised the poor Irish and South Germans," he confessed, adding that "none of the colored folk I knew were so poor, drunken and sloven."46 However poor, drunken, and sloven, the Irish and Bavarians and Czechs were as white as their Anglo-Saxon detractors, a trump card that Willie and his people could never find in the deck of assimilation. Willie's troubling sense that he was somehow different grew, at first imperceptibly, then gnawingly.

With that flare for drama in language in which he has few equals, Du Bois pinpoints, in *The Souls of Black Folk*, the exact moment in his ten-year-old life, a spring day in 1878, when, as he says, “I remember well when the shadow swept across me. . . . . In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys' and girls' heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards--ten cents a package—and exchange.  The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card--refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life, and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.” A permanent, anchoring sense of Du Bois's racial identity *could* have come from a single such traumatic rebuff in Great Barrington’s "wee wooden schoolhouse." Yet sympathetic skepticism is advisable whenever Du Bois advances a concept or proposition by way of autobiography. Often, the truth is not in the facts but in the conceptual or moral validity behind them. In the case of the sweeping shadow and separating veil, there are several local versions and equivalents. But what is clear is that Du Bois extracted both his seminal concept of the divided self and his powerful metaphor of the veil from his pubescent years here. For a sensitive, well-behaved male of sixteen, and in that time and place, his innocence of the opposite sex was not all that unusual. Except for a single, coy reference in the *Autobiography* to a "lovely little plump, brown girl who appeared out of nowhere, and smiled at me demurely," girls had significance solely as classmates or relatives in the Great Barrington narratives.

In 1880s America, not even the sons of mill owners (and but the rarest daughter) took college education as a matter of course.  Du Bois recalled that maybe two others in his high school graduating class of thirteen were heading for college.  He knew well that the doors to higher education were "barred with ancient tongues" and that his best hope for steady work in the future, paying enough to support himself and his ailing mother, was by way of vocational courses offered at Great Barrington High School (GBHS). Willie's supercharged ambition at first failed to grasp the value a college education might have for a colored man. That was GBHS Principal Frank Hosmer's doing: "He suggested, quite as a matter of fact, that I ought to take the college preparatory course." Hosmer did more, for the unraveling Burghardt clan's fitful limited resources could hardly afford the college-course textbooks on Greek, Latin, algebra, and geometry. Louis Russell's mother, second wife of Farley Russell the mill owner, agreed to buy them, after Hosmer spoke with her.

The records for the high school years are lost or destroyed, but memories of Willie's academic rage to succeed persisted until the 1960’s among some of the townspeople. What gave Mary Silvina the greatest of all pleasures was her son's performance in school. She followed a policy of noninterference in Willie's conduct and unlike many parents of her generation, she made no attempt to train him out of left-handedness. There were seven boys and six girls in the graduation class on June 27, 1884. It must have been a long evening, with the program preliminaries, music, and thirteen finest-hour recitations. Looking "somewhat drawn" but proud, Mary Silvina Du Bois and other Burghardts, heard Willie deliver an oration on Wendell Phillips, the conscience of New England abolitionism. It was the success of the evening, the *Berkshire Courier* reporter judging that "William E. Dubois [sic] a colored lad who has had good standing" gave an excellent oration and "provoked repeated applause."

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But he was not going to Harvard. Not even to Williams College. Money remained a big problem, of course. There was the care of failing Mary Silvina. She wanted college for Willie as much as he did, but the loyal, humane thing for him to do was to stay in Great Barrington working to help support her. And there was the racial factor, the distinct lack of enthusiasm among so many otherwise kindly, charitable white people for helping even a brilliant "Negro" to attend the nation's leading college. Principal Hosmer shifted their sites southward. Four Congregational churches pledged twenty-five dollars each for four years to underwrite Willie's education at Fisk University, a Congregational school for Negroes in Nashville, Tennessee. Harvard was not lost--the thought never occurred to him--merely adjourned. Suddenly, Mary Silvina was gone, dead of an apoplectic stroke and buried in the last week in March 1885.  For all the tender words of affection and comradeship, Willie's grief is oddly formal, repressed, intellectualized. Whatever her death really meant to him, the timing was perfect. One more obstacle to Harvard College had fallen. Finally, he was free to begin redefining himself.

With earnings from a summertime position as construction crew timekeeper at Searles and Castle, he was off to Fisk University. His Burghardt relatives supposedly grumbled about his going South. He says he did not. For him, it was a great adventure into the unknown, sort of an educational safari among the fascinating and barbarous--"the South of slavery, rebellion, and black folk." Remarkably, the Fisk curriculum offered its students Greek, Latin, French, and German, theology, natural sciences, music, moral philosophy, and history. Helen Morgan from Oberlin, the first woman appointed full professor in a coeducational institution in the country had chosen Fisk over Vassar as the place of her life's work in Latin. Du Bois arrived that September 1885, entering the sophomore class at the age of seventeen because of his superior northern secondary education. His memory of his first dining hall supper he carried to his grave, retrieving the moment when he sat "opposite two of the most beautiful beings God ever revealed to the eyes of seventeen."  One of them, Lena Calhoun, was the great-aunt of Lena Horne, yet to be born and enchant a middle-aged Du Bois almost as much as her comely forebear. At age 92, Willie would animatedly tell the Columbia Oral History Project interviewer "that she was beautifully dressed--oh, a perfectly lovely girl." No Fisk woman would ever refuse his card because he was black.

Willie's profound relief and delight at having finally reached at Fisk a safe harbor of feelings could still burst out long afterward, as in this cathartic passage from *Darkwater*: “Consider, for a moment, how miraculous it all was to a boy of seventeen, just escaped from a narrow valley: I willed and lo! my people came dancing about me,--riotous in color, gay in laughter, full of sympathy, need, and pleading; darkly delicious girls--'colored' girls—sat beside me and actually talked to me while I gazed in tongue-tied silence or babbled in boastful dreams.” It always annoyed Rayford Whittingham Logan, one of his closest future collaborators, whenever Du Bois insisted (as he often did) that he had embraced his racial identity only at Fisk. "Henceforward I was a Negro," Du Bois would proclaim, and then soar into a grand vision of his place in the race, knowing full well that Anglo-Saxon America was objectively blind by custom and law to intermediate racial categories.  Logan always said that Du Bois's claim of belated racial self-discovery was a polemical contrivance to give greater punch to his writings about race relations.  To claim that his identity as a Negro was in some sense the exercise of an option, an existential commitment, was to define Du Bois’s celebration of and struggle for his people as an act of the greatest nobility and philanthropy. With the country beginning to fill up with Slavic and southern European immigrants for whom, like the earlier Irish, the surest touchstone of citizenship was distance between themselves and Americans of African ancestry, pretending to be racially indeterminate was an invitation to physical battery or even institutional commitment. Increasingly,[OU1] <#_msocom_1>  you were either white or black; there was no Creole or mestizo (with the problematic exception of Louisiana), and mulatto was largely a census term that was shortly to be abandoned.

Graduating with highest honors after three brilliant years at Fisk, Great Barrington’s brown ambassador entered Harvard College in September 1888. Curiously enough, the academic standards at Harvard and Fisk may not have been as incommensurable as it might seem reasonable to suppose today, given the imported Ivy League faculties and the minuscule social class from which the elite black southern liberal arts colleges recruited their best students. Still, for a young African American even of Du Bois's manifest brilliance to pass from a two decades-old missionary school to the two hundred fifty-two year-old empyrean of white collegiate training in America was an extraordinary ascension. His mother’s sudden death had eased the Fisk matriculation. A timely bequest from Grandfather Alexander Du Bois, father of the long vanished Alfred, provided money enough together with a scholarship to survive the first year. As part of President Charles W. Eliot's ongoing plan to transform what had been a diploma-granting club for New England scions, Harvard began opening its doors to exceptional male representatives of immigrant groups, as well as a few African Americans. Harvard and Yale traditionally required African American baccalaureates to repeat a portion of their undergraduate training, a requirement frequently imposed on white graduates of undistinguished colleges. Du Bois entered Harvard College as a junior, the sixth of his race to do so, and graduated magna cum laude with a concentration in philosophy under William James in the class of 1890. He commenced graduate studies at Friedrich Wilhelm University. The first of his race to win a Harvard doctorate in 1896, Du Bois haughtily allowed later that it was a consolation for having been denied the few additional months needed to finish a coveted doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin. His 1896 dissertation on the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade to the United States was an immediate classic, the first history monograph published in Harvard’s new historical series. *The Philadelphia Negro* (1899) was recognized as a methodological breakthrough in the social-sciences.

A score of years after departing his birthplace, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’s renown as a scholar and what today we call a public intellectual achieved an unparalleled eminence with the publication in 1903 of a collection of fourteen bombshell essays that could only be described as 'sui generis'. "The Souls of Black Folk", explained Americans of color to themselves with a saliency that still inspires and defines today. The 35 year–old author was the first to grasp the international implications of the struggle for racial justice, memorably proclaiming, at the dawn of the century, that the problem of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. He was a principal founder of the nation’s oldest civil rights association, created one hundred nine years ago this month, and whose militant monthly, *The Crisis*, he edited as the voice of uncompromising racial equality for a quarter century. No exaggeration to state that a majority of literate African American households were weaned on Du Bois’s monthly---even those beholden to the legacy of Booker T. Washington.  All Americans owe Du Bois a considerable debt for the historical masterpiece, *Black Reconstruction in America*, which changed forever our understanding of the shameful suppression of racial democracy in the post-Civil War South.  A Du Bois bibliography runs to sixteen pioneering or provocative books of sociology, history, politics, and race relations. In his seventies, he found time to finish a second autobiography (the splendid *Dusk of Dawn*) and to produce three large historical novels, complementing the two large works of fiction written in the first two decades of the twentieth century that anticipated the so-called Harlem Renaissance. The long march from the Supreme Court’s *Plessy v. Ferguson*’s “separate but equal” equivocation in 1896 to *Brown v. Board*’s mandate for integration in 1954 would have been even longer and harder without his mind and pen. Du Bois cut an amazing swath through four continents (he institutionalized the Pan African Movement, was a Lenin Peace Prize laureate, and his birthday was once a national holiday in China).

A new edition of *The Souls of Black Folk* is forthcoming this month. Properly so, because this book is both timeless while being also time-bound. Like the public’s immutable memory of Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech, so its vivid retention of Du Bois’s color-line prophesy has meant that the evolved ideas both men held in their last years are forgotten, unknown, deemed subversive---or all of the above. We should probably not expect to see the release of a new edition of *In Battle for Peace*, Du Bois’s account of his 1952 Justice Department indictment, trial, and embarrassed acquittal in Washington as a foreign agent. The New England-born and bred Du Bois criticized his country’s shortcomings as much from a youthful Calvinist’s intolerance of moral slothfulness as from an aged Marxist’s impatience with the rigged outcomes of unregulated capitalism. In a 1951 Op-Ed in the *National Guardian *he called for “a vast social change,” and warned that America’s democratic ideals were salvageable only by drastically “curbing the present power of concentrated wealth.” Speaking to a capacity audience in Carnegie Hall on Du Bois’s birthday in 1968, Martin Luther King insisted that Du Bois was a personality “history cannot ignore,” yet Du Bois had been virtually excised from his country’s mainstream narrative when Dr. King spoke these words five years after Dr. Du Bois’s death in self-imposed exile in Ghana, still lucid and confrontational at ninety-five.

Famous at fifty, Du Bois often claimed that his death was practically requested at seventy-five. He characteristically looked upon the ultimate value of citizenship for people of color in America with the gravest misgivings if that citizenship were to mean that the peoples of Africa and Asia were to become subjects under a *Pax Americana* maintained for the profit of the military- industrial-financial-complex.  In his Carnegie Hall tribute, King spoke as a civil rights leader whose evolving economic philosophy owed a great deal to Du Bois’s socialism and whose own deep distress about his country’s militarism also echoed the latter’s fierce reproach of American imperialism. The old contrarian’s death on the eve of the historic 1963 March on Washington was announced as Dr. King prepared to deliver his I Have a Dream speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The generational baton passed with stunning symbolic appropriateness that day. Six weeks after his 1968 Carnegie Hall tribute to Du Bois, Martin King died from a sniper’s bullet in Memphis.

To be sure, the complexities of the American twenty- first century do beggar those of the last. Du Bois’s twentieth- century problem was a color-line actually without color, for it was starkly black and white. Our century is on its way to being brown and yellow as well as minority white and black. Still, as Du Bois might well have argued, to concede that a historic racial dyad has yielded to a polychrome present, does not mean that race has been transcended as a potent force in our national life. Rather, as Du Bois himself predicted in his final years, the future problems of the color-line will be problems of the cash and credit line in which the problems of the past will play a cruelly significant part. In one of his last jeremiads before exiling himself to Ghana, he called for the restoration of democracy in America.  "Make it again possible for the people to express their will," he implored.  "Today the rich and the powerful rulers of America divide themselves into Republican and Democrats in order to raise [millions of] dollars to buy the next election and prevent you from having a third party to vote for, or to stop war, theft and murder by your votes."

Were he with us this afternoon, the old contrarian Du Bois would almost surely discern in the shortcomings of the last US presidential administration the toxic persistence of race. Senatorial candidate Obama debuted at the 2004 Democratic Convention where he struck a memorable exceptionalist chord by assuring us that ‘there is not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America---there’s the United States of America.” Presidential Candidate Obama channeled the 'e pluribus unum ' mythos of American Exceptionalism as seldom before by a credible public figure. Not only did he minimize the significance of political labels, but racism was seen as an old problem that the candidate’s generation---he called it the “Joshua Generation”---could refute and even move beyond as it honored Rosa, Whitney, John Lewis, and Martin of the Moses Generation. Racism “was subject to refutation,” Barack Obama wrote in *The Audacity of Hope*, his ambitious campaign book.

Indeed, in his *Dreams from My Father*, the most revelatory personal narrative written by a major political figure, the 44th President tells us that he was put off by the anguished writings of Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison. “Each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem,” Obama sighed---“all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.” To be sure, the legacy of Barack Obama is writing itself as we speak. Yet what can now be sadly realized is that a redeeming vision of a national post-racial reset that defined the Obama presidency has succumbed to the nightmare of worsening disparities now almost irrevocably color-coded, by Supreme Court majorities disingenuously mocking African American and Latino voting rights, by reborn nativism more virulent than its mid-nineteenth-century parent, and by criminal justice system irregularities, such as the Zimmerman acquittal and the Ferguson impasse, perceived as outrageous enough to spark corrective riots.

The first existential president appeared to believe that he could resolve those insurmountable dilemmas of nationality and color unforgettably posed by Du Bois’s foundational text--- notwithstanding the reality of white majority votes against him in 2008 and 2016. Instead, the political illusions and policy failures of the 44th president’s tenure have paradoxically yielded the seeming triumph of racism and cleptocracy. The vital center did not hold and the angry fringe prevailed last November, delivering a confused democracy to an oligarchy presided over by a narcissistic aberration.

When he left this pleasant village in the mountains of Western Massachusetts, Du Bois made the existential decision that his life would exemplify the American race problem. That Du Bois saw his illustrious civil rights vocation in such existential terms was summed up shortly before his death in 1963, when he reiterated in his third autobiography that, but for the race problem, he might have become, he said, “an unquestioning worshipper at the shrine of the established social order into which I was born. But just that part of this order which seemed to most of my fellows nearest perfection seemed to me most inequitable and wrong,” he had understood; “and starting from that critique, I gradually, as the years went by, found other things to question. . . .” He was one of the most aristocratic intellectuals ever to enroll in the Communist Party of the United States. Nor is there anything typical about a political evolution that, in contrast to the profile of most lives, became increasingly anti- establishmentarian, so that Du Bois at age 95 was more radically unorthodox than virtually any other engaged intellectual, black or white, of the 20th century.

By the time he made his well-timed exit on the eve of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Du Bois had repeatedly proclaimed in so many words that the cash-line was the cardinal problem of the age. The real problem of the century, therefore, was really the manipulation of race in the service of wealth, and a clairvoyant Du Bois greatly feared that the odds increasingly favored the manipulations of the rich. In one of his most prescient essays, "Negroes and the Crisis of Capitalism in the United States," written ten years before his death, he offered a diagnostic of the contemporary, omnivorous turbo-capitalism that now assails the nation, admonishing that

"the organized effort of American industry to usurp government surpasses anything in modern history.  . . . 

From the use of psychology to spread truth has come the use of organized gathering of news to guide public opinion then deliberately to mislead it by scientific advertising and propaganda

. . . .  Mass capitalistic control of books and periodicals, news gathering and distribution, radio, cinema, and television has made the throttling of democracy possible and the distortion of education and failure of justice widespread."

In the course of his long, turbulent career, then, Great Barrington’s native son attempted virtually every possible solution to the problem of racism---scholarship, propaganda, integration, cultural and economic separatism, politics, international communism, expatriation, third-world solidarity. First had come culture and education for the elites; then the ballot for the masses; then economic democracy; and, decade by decade, finally all these solutions in the service of global racial parity and economic justice. On October 1, 1961, at ninety- three, Du Bois applied for membership in the Communist Party of the United States and then departed immediately with his second wife Shirley Graham for Nkrumah’s Ghana. By that time, the membership of the CPUSA, FBI agents included, numbered well under then thousand.  His letter to the CPUSA chairman stated, “Today, I have reached a firm conclusion. Capitalism cannot reform itself; it is doomed to self-destruction.”

It should be understood that it is by far the significance of Du Bois's protest and of his gradual alienation, rather than the solutions he proposed, that are instructive. For he was an intellectual in the purest sense of the word---a thinker whose obligation was to be dissatisfied continually with his own thoughts and those of others. No doubt he was precipitous in totally writing off the market economy.  Even so, it may be suggested that Du Bois was right to insist that to leave the solution of systemic social problems exclusively to the market is an agenda guaranteeing obscene economic inequality in the short run and inescapable political gridlock or confusion in the long run.

A decade after my Du Bois biography said its peace, I happened upon an insightful, lively, small book about the question that has time and again fiercely—if civilly---divided Great Barringtonians of how best or how best NOT TO honor the memory of William Edward Burghardt Dubois.  Many of you will know that book well---*Those About Him Remained Silent: The Battle over W.E.B. Du Bois*, by Amy Bass.   By the time Amy Bass’s book appeared in 2009, Du Bois had lain venerated in the soil of Ghana almost fifty years. The world outside Great Barrington had already pretty much moved on after Ronald Reagan tore down Mr. Gorbachev’s Berlin Wall, after the Soviet Union imploded taking the Cold War with it, and after winds of sexual, racial, cultural changes swept over the land. But not yet in the town of Du Bois’s birth.

“People in the Berkshires,” Professor Bass wrote, “have been unable to decide upon Du Bois’s place in local history, choosing to focus largely on his Communist Party membership and eventual Ghanaian residency rather than his local, national, and Pan-African achievements and legacies, and,” she continues, “choosing to vilify those who tried to pay tribute to him.” There is in this book a cast of varied, valiant Du Boisians: Walter Wilson, the real estate mogul, writer manquee, and card-carrying socialist who, together with that exceptional scholar Edward Gordon and with the dedication of Ruth Jones and Elaine Gunn and Julian Bond, brought forth, against fierce opposition, the delayed Du Bois memorial ceremony on Egremont Plain on a bright October Saturday in 1969. “We simply gathered in the field and did our thing and left,” Ed Gordon recalled.

I ventured that opinion ten years ago, and it seems to me today that the rejection of the high school school-naming efforts of the 'Berkshire Eagle's Derek Gentile, Rachel Fletchter, Randy Weinstein, Bernard Drew, and others must now be broadly acknowledged as the missed symbolic opportunity it was. As Rachel Fletcher’s eleventh-hour appeal to the school committee observed, Du Bois, “more than any other alumnus of this school district exhibits the promise of public education.” 150 years late, as this inspiring Du Bois birthday commemoration concludes tonight, Great Barringtonians will have solemnly acknowledged that, surely, it is time both to forgive his flaws and to prize his genius.

[David Levering Lewis has written nine books and compiled several editions. A historian of the French Third Republic, he wrote Prisoners of Honor: The Dreyfus Affair (1974, UK, 1975) based on new material from French military archives. Prisoners of Honor had been temporarily set aside to write King: A Critical Biography(1970, rev. ed. 1978, 2013) for Allen Lane the Penguin Press, UK, the first scholarly biography of Dr. King. Lewis's civil rights history excursion led him to write a history of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was in Vogue for Alfred Knopf (1980). Third Republic interests, combined with a lectureship at the University of Ghana, inspired Lewis to write The Race to Fashoda: European Colonialism and African Resistance to the Scramble for Africa (1988, rev. ed. 1994). W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919(1993) received in 1994, respectively, the Bancroft Prize in American History, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. In 2001, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (2000) received a second Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Lewis's recent book, God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 was published by Norton (2008) and translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Indonesian, and several other languages.]

Thanks to the author for his permission to publish this on Portside.

Listen here.

Dr. David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning Du Bois biographer, delivered a speech, titled "Prologue to Greatness: W.E.B. Du Bois and Great Barrington," during the Du Bois 150th Birthday Celebration at the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington on February 23, 2018. This event also kicked off the W. E. B. Du Bois Lecture Series on Education and Democracy across the Bard Early Colleges. 

David was introduced by Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed, a history professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

The Du Bois 150th Anniversary Festival and birthday celebration was hosted by the town of Great Barrington, and organized by Festival Committee Co-chairs Randy Weinstein, founder and executive director of The Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, and Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, founder and executive director of Multicultural BRIDGE.

Video footage courtesy Monk Schane-Lydon, faculty member at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a sponsor of the Du Bois 150th Anniversary Festival.

Bard Early Colleges
March 13, 2018