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Du Bois’s words on racial equality still resonate

Kiana Estime of Railroad Street Youth read W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1904 “Credo” at a program at Mason Library in Great Barrington on Feb. 28. In the foreground is emcee Wray Gunn of Sheffield. Photo by Bernard A. Drew

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — Last weekend’s commemoration of the 1965  peaceful protest in Selma, Ala., in which freedom marchers were clubbed and tear-gassed by troopers brought home yet again how far we are from achieving racial equality in this country.

On a smaller level and in a different vein during Black History Month the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site, the Great Barrington Historical Society and Mason Library sponsored “A Celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois in His Own Words” at the library on Feb. 28, a week after what would have been the Great Barrington native’s 147th birthday.

Du Bois, one of the intellectual leaders of the civil rights movement in the first half of the 20th century, still has meaningful things to say, Gunn said.

Will Singleton of NAACP Berkshire County Branch, before he read “Sorrow Songs”  from “The Souls of Black Folk,” noted Du Bois became a controversial figure later in life. But in his writings, there is much that is poignant today.

Wray Gunn Sr. of Sheffield, retired chemist with Specialty Minerals in North Canaan, hosted the program. Speakers included Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin (reading “Boyhood” from “Autobiography”), Pearle Conway of Macedonia Baptist Church (“House of the Black Burghardts”), Kiana Estime of Railroad Street Youth (“Credo”), Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (“Woman Suffrage”),  and Leigh Davis, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center (“Of Sons of Masters and Man”). Dolores Root of W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site made concluding remarks.

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For my reading, I found in the online Du Bois Papers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Du Bois Library website some interesting letters from 1925 and 1926 that demonstrate the positive feeling many in Great Barrington had for Du Bois at the time . He had then, and always, a good time when he came back to the community that meant so much to him. 

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June 1, 1925, Clarence I. Sweet letter to W.E.B. Du Bois:

Dear Mr. Du Bois: The Alumni Association of Great Barrington and Searles High School has been resurrected and we are to hold a meeting on July 10th.

We are very anxious to have you attend and take the role of principal speaker of the evening. We also hope to have a short talk by Judge Hinman and Dr. Charles H. Painter, both of whom I think you know. You will find many of your old friends in attendance, and we think we can assure you of a good time.

The writer will be pleased to entertain you over the weekend. Hoping to receive an early and favorable reply, I am Sincerely Yours, C.I. Sweet.

Sweet, at the time superintendent of Monument Mills in Housatonic village, would later become executive vice-president of Great Barrington Savings Bank. Du Bois’s June 17th reply from Los Angeles is missing from the Du Bois archive, but Sweet’s answer survives.

Have talked with Mrs. Sweet about your wife and daughter coming and she says that she will be very glad to look after all of you over the weekend. I would hesitate to recommend the Miller House, for while they have recently put on a new coat of paint on the outside, the food is not of the best and the place is not rated as high as it was in the old days. There is a small Inn on Rosseter Street which is managed by a colored man by the name of Willoughby, which caters to colored people of the better class. I frequently hear it spoken of and one of my friends had occasion to go there a few days ago and informed me that the house was nicely furnished and was neat. 

I just mention the place as I want you to enjoy yourself to the fullest. CI Sweet

Edgar Willoughby, a native of Antigua, British West Indies, took in guests and served meals at Sunset Inn, now gone.

Sweet to Du Bois, July 7, 1925: 

I wonder if you know that there is a bus line running between New York, through Great Barrington, to Pittsfield? The morning bus leaves the 45th St. Entrance of the Hotel Astor at 8:00 o’clock A.M. Many people are making use of it, especially this hot weather.

I trust you will let me know just how and when you expect to arrive in Great Barrington, so that I may arrange to meet you.

Du Bois was way ahead of him. He sent this telegram to Sweet July 7; its brevity may be accounted for in part by the cost-per-word to send it:

Will stop at Sunset Inn. Will telephone you Friday morning.

Du Bois letter to Sweet, July 16

My dear Mr. Sweet: May I thank you and Mrs. Sweet very much for your kind hospitality while I and my family were in Great Barrington. I enjoyed my stay very much and I think that the alumni re-union was excellent.

The Sunset Inn visits became more intense in 1928, when his friends gave Du Bois his grandfather’s old house (the “House of the Black Burghardts”) and property on Route 23. That property, now held by UMass Amherst, is open to visitors during warmer months with a walking path and explanatory signage. 

The writer is a Great Barrington resident and member of Friends of the Du Bois Homesite.