The Berkshire Hills Regional School District has voted to rename a Great Barrington, Massachusetts middle school after local legend W.E.B. Du Bois.
Superintendent Peter Dillon says the unanimous school committee vote to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School after the civil rights icon and NAACP cofounder took a concerted effort.
“A little more than a year ago, a group of citizens took an advisory vote at the three town meetings of the town that serve the district – so that’s Great Barrington, West Stockbridge and Stockbridge," he told WAMC. "And those votes were very supportive of renaming the school.”
But – as with past efforts to recognize Du Bois, a Great Barrington native, in the region – resistance emerged.
“Then as they got closer to the vote, a group of citizens who expressed frustration or were working against the vote put together a petition that had something like 250 signatures,” said Dillon.
“There’s a recurring argument about Du Bois and his communism late in life and his leaving the U.S. and the prospective interpretation of that," said Gwendolyn VanSant of Great Barrington’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee. “What was crucial in that 11th hour, literally, was to focus on understanding a Black scholar and activist in civil rights and what he could see about capitalism and our U.S. society and how he’d been treated, and that we needed a new way other than capitalism and we have to understand that. We have to understand what he was saying about the future that we’re living right in this Black Lives Matter moment.”
The activist and sociologist was singled out by the FBI in the early 1940s and was targeted and harassed by the virulent anti-Communist McCarthyism campaign in the 50’s for his anti-war activism, vocal anti-colonialism and opposition to nuclear weapons. He eulogized Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin in 1953 and joined the Communist party in 1961 at the age of 93. He moved to Ghana the same year and became a resident there after the United States refused to renew his passport, and died there two years later.
“If he were a white scholar with the same CV, would this be such an issue?" asked VanSant. "And the answer would be, you know, no. So this is really about race bias and not understanding our legacy.”
The efforts to rally around Du Bois in the hours before the vote yielded dividends.
“Within a day, my office received on the order of I think 300 or 400 emails in support,” said Dillon.
Du Bois’s political legacy wasn’t the only issue some residents raised with the move.
“The other two pieces were just what it meant to hold up one individual and name a building after an individual and there was some what I would categorize as romanticism around the three schools holding topographical references in the name,” said VanSant.
“The last time when we voted on this 15 years ago – and I was chairman of the school committee then – we had already set the ground rules that it would not be named after anyone living or dead and we would prefer a geographic name," said school committee chair and Great Barrington selectboard chair Steve Bannon, who voted against renaming the school after Du Bois in 2005. “The reason for that is we felt the citizens of Great Barrington are the ones – and West Stockbridge and Stockbridge – are the ones we should give thanks for for allowing us to build the two schools. Fast forward 15 years, obviously things are much different nationally and although many people might disagree with us – or at least some people – we felt that it was time to revisit it and the reason I voted for it is because quite honestly it is a different time for minorities, it’s a different time for our world, and who better to name a school after than W.E.B. Du Bois.”