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Du Bois Legacy Day Officially Added To Great Barrington Calendar

A bald man with a mustache in a suit sits looking into the camera
W.E.B. Du Bois in 1918.

The birthday of civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois will be recognized with an official holiday in his hometown of Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Gwendolyn VanSant, of the town’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee says the yearly acknowledgement emerged from work that began in 2018 with the celebration of the Great Barrington native’s 150th birthday.

“It’s just been one of the things that we’ve wanted to do, and we finally got to that part of the list," she told WAMC. "And it seemed – 2020 just seemed like the time to really move on it and get it drafted, and it took us a few rounds, but once we got it drafted we asked to be on the selectboard agenda and it got voted on really quickly ahead of his birthday this year.”

The town government approved the proclamation of W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Day a week ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

VanSant says the committee is making plans for the first official celebration on Du Bois’ February 23rd birthday.

“Our vision is that we have a day to really honor this homecoming of Du Bois that we’ve been working on for the past three years, that every child in Great Barrington knows that Du Bois is from here," she said. "We picture businesses holding up the day and really honoring Du Bois. We’ll put the banners back up as we always do.”

The day is part of a larger project to enshrine the teachings of Du Bois in all aspects of Great Barrington’s identity.

“What’s really important to the committee is those values that we hold up of racial equality, economic justice, education and civil rights, that those really are maintained at the center for all municipal actions, all law enforcement and government, and it’s just a way to say that these are values that we hold as a town, because our native son Dr. Du Bois is from this town and his legacy belongs to us,” said VanSant.

VanSant dreams of a day where the writer, sociologist and NAACP co-founder is recognized with a national holiday.

“His calling out the capitalism and the racism in our country as foundational, needing to be eradicated – he got a lot of backlash from that, and it’s just really time to move on and really embrace him for being that truth teller and that sage way back when,” she told WAMC.

Dennis Powell, the president of the Berkshire County chapter of the NAACP, applauded the move. He visited Ghana in August 2019 on an NAACP-organized trip to see where Du Bois lived from 1961 until his death in 1963, at age 95.

“For me, it was a life-changing experience," Powell told WAMC. "I got to visit his museum as well as his gravesite. I actually took dirt from his gravesite here in Great Barrington, and took it over to Ghana and left it at his gravesite. And I actually brought dirt back from his gravesite. We haven’t been able to do anything with it because the pandemic struck, so it’s sitting here in my house just waiting for an opportunity when we can get together again and we can have some type of ceremony down in Great Barrington.”

Powell says he also brought water from the Housatonic River – Great Barrington’s main waterway – as a donation to the Du Bois museum in Ghana.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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