W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite

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W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite
An informational plaque with "Boulder Dedicated to the Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois" headlining text and pictures in the front on a slender black stand to the right. It stands in a clearing in a wooded area covered in orange downed pine needles; to its rear, on a small rise, is the boulder referred to on the plaque.
Memorial boulder, 2010
W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite is located in Massachusetts
W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite
Location Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°10′42″N 73°23′37″W / 42.17833°N 73.39361°W / 42.17833; -73.39361Coordinates: 42°10′42″N 73°23′37″W / 42.17833°N 73.39361°W / 42.17833; -73.39361
Area 5 acres (2.0 ha)[2]
Architect Unknown
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference #

76000947

[1]
Added to NRHP May 11, 1976

The W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite (or W.E.B. Du Bois Homesite) is a National Historic Landmark in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, commemorating an important location in the life of African American intellectual and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963). The site contains foundational remnants of the home of Du Bois' grandfather, which Du Bois lived in for the first five years of his life. Given the house in 1928, he planned to rehabilitate the house, but was unable to do so for financial and logistical reasons, and sold it in 1954. The house was torn down in the late 1950s. The site is located on South Egremont Road (state routes 23 and 41), west of the junction with Route 71.

Plans to develop the site as a memorial to Du Bois in the late 1960s were delayed due to local opposition, which the site's proponents attributed in part to racism, but was generally expressed as opposition to Du Bois's politics. On May 11, 1976 the site was declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was donated to the state in 1987, and is administered by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

History[edit]

The Burghardt family (of Dutch origin) was present in the vicinity of Great Barrington, Massachusetts in colonial times, with documented ownership of land in the area from the 1740s. Tom Burghardt, a slave of the family, probably earned his freedom for his participation in the American Revolutionary War.[3] William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (commonly referred to as W.E.B. Du Bois), a leading African American intellectual, civil rights activist, and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born into this family in 1868.[2] By the early 19th century the "Black Burghardts" had settled in the Egremont Plain area a few miles outside the center of Great Barrington.[4] Although he was not born in his grandfather Othello's house (the house in which he was born in was torn down around 1900),[5] it is where his mother moved the small family when Du Bois' father abandoned them while Du Bois was an infant.[6] In his 1928 article The House of the Black Burghardts, Du Bois described the house as "a delectable place — simple, square and low, with the great room of the fireplace, the flagged kitchen, half a step below, and the lower woodshed beyond. Steep strong stairs led to Sleep, while without was a brook, a well and a mighty elm."[7]

W.E.B. Du Bois and mother

When Du Bois was five years old, his grandfather died, and his grandmother was forced to sell the house to settle debts.[8] Du Bois's mother moved the family into Great Barrington, where Du Bois grew up in financially difficult conditions. A gifted student, he attended Fisk University on scholarship, and then Harvard, after which he embarked on his long and distinguished career.[2] Over the next decades, Du Bois periodically returned to Great Barrington. It is where his children were born (at the homes of relatives), and where he buried his son Burghardt (1887–89) and wife Nina (in 1950). In 1906, he sent his family to Great Barrington from Atlanta, Georgia (where they then lived) after that year's race riots.[9]

Dubois expressed interest in purchasing his grandfather's property on a visit to Great Barrington in 1925.[10] Three years later the brothers Joel and Arthur Spingarn, both civil rights activists involved in the NAACP, raised funds and purchased the old Burghardt homestead as a gift to Du Bois for his sixtieth birthday.[11] Du Bois developed plans to transform the property into a middle-class summer retreat, but financial difficulties and his move in 1934 from New York City to Atlanta scuttled the possibility of executing those plans. Du Bois finally sold the property to a neighbor in 1954, who had the house (by then dilapidated) torn down.[12]

Conversion to memorial[edit]

In 1967 Walter Wilson and Edmund W. Gordon purchased two parcels of the old Burghardt lands, including the site of the Burghardt house, that form a U shape around a private residence,[2][7] and announced the intention of converting the property into a park memorializing Du Bois. This plan was immediately met with local opposition. Wilson and Gordon were both outsiders: Wilson was a controversial area real estate developer originally from Tennessee, and Gordon was from New York City.[13] Opposition was generally couched in criticism of Du Bois for his Communist sympathies and his renunciation of American citizenship for that of Ghana (where he is buried) late in life, and was spearheaded by veterans' organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars.[14] Wilson countered arguments by pointing to Du Bois' complex legacy, and noting that Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold was memorialized at Saratoga for his role in the 1777 Battles of Saratoga despite his later treason.[15] Supporters suspected the FBI of involvement in the opposition (Du Bois having been under its scrutiny because of his Communist views); although the FBI was found to have considered planting a critical news story, it concluded that local opposition was sufficient and that it did not have to intervene.[16] Wilson also felt that many opponents were motivated by race, although no opposition statements were made in overtly racial ways.[17]

Wilson and Gordon established the Du Bois Memorial Foundation to take ownership of the property. Funded in part by high profile donors including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Sidney Poitier, and Norman Rockwell, the foundation received the property in September 1969, and it was dedicated later that year.[7][18] The dedication was marred by local hostility: the Berkshire Courier, while counseling against violence, suggested the site be vandalized.[19] The town also briefly threatened to disallow the holding of the ceremony, since there was some question about whether the intended use of the site met local zoning regulations.[20]

Map of the site as of 2009. The green area is mostly wooded, the yellow area is more open. Legend:
  • *A: Parking lot
  • *B: Interpretive display
  • *C: Commemorative boulder
  • *D: Home site area
  • *E: Private property

Over the next ten years, no significant development took place on the property. The foundation was reluctant to place permanent markers and displays on it for fear of vandalism or theft.[21] In 1976, a decade after Du Bois' death, the site was designated a National Historic Landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.[1] In 1983 the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which had amassed a collection of Du Bois papers, began a series of archaeological excavations on the property, seeking to research the Black Burghardt history.[22] In 1987 the Foundation turned the property over to the state, with the university as its steward. The university paid for the construction of a parking area and the installation of interpretive signs.[7]

Today[edit]

Today the two parcels of land that form the 5-acre (2.0 ha) site have been planted with a thick grove of pine. A path leads north from the parking area to an informational kiosk about Du Bois and his life. From there another path leads west, into a small depression where a memorial boulder sits, with a commemorative plaque. Near the southwest corner of the property are the remnants of the original house's stone foundation.[2] Although Great Barrington has come to support the Du Bois legacy (marking other places in town important in his life), the site has still been the occasional target of vandalism.[23] It is considered part of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area.[7]

If one slips out the northern neck of Manhattan and flies to the left of the silver Sound, one swoops in time onto the Golden River; and dodging its shining beauty, now right, now left, comes after a hundred miles of lake, hill and mountain, in the Old Bay State. Then at the foot of high Mt. Everett one takes a solemn decision; left is sweet, old Sheffield; but pass it by stolidly and slip gently into tiny South Egremont which always sleeps. Then wheel right again and come to Egremont Plain and the House of the Black Burghardts.

— W.E.B. Du Bois[24]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2008-04-15. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Graves, Lynn Gomez (October 30, 1975). "National Register of Historic Places nomination, W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Home Site". National Park Service. Retrieved 2013-05-29. 
  3. ^ Lewis, p. 13
  4. ^ Glassberg and Paynter, p. 243
  5. ^ Lewis, p. 21
  6. ^ Wolters, pp. 6–8
  7. ^ a b c d e "W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite and Great Barrington: A Plan for Heritage Conservation and Interpretation". Friends of the W.E.B. Du Bois Homesite. Retrieved 2013-05-29. 
  8. ^ Lewis, pp. 22–23
  9. ^ Bass, pp. 25–26
  10. ^ Drew, p. 3
  11. ^ Lewis, p. 493
  12. ^ Glassberg and Paynter, p. 245
  13. ^ Bass, p. 58
  14. ^ Bass, pp. 60–63
  15. ^ Bass, pp. 71–72
  16. ^ Bass, pp. 122–123
  17. ^ Bass, pp. 74–75
  18. ^ Bass, pp. 88–90
  19. ^ Glassberg and Paynter, p. 246
  20. ^ Bass, p. 88
  21. ^ Bass, pp. 132–133
  22. ^ Glassberg and Paynter, p. 249
  23. ^ Glassberg and Paynter, pp. 250–252
  24. ^ Bass, p. 5

References[edit]

[1]

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Paynter, Robert (2014). "Building an Historical Landscape, Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois". International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18: 316-39.