GREAT BARRINGTON — Tucked in among the downtown’s commercial buildings is an old, shingle-style church with peeling white paint and a 30-foot tower out front.
Its dilapidated condition belies its historical importance. The Clinton AME Zion Church served as a gathering place and spiritual home for Black Berkshirites for nearly 130 years, a refuge from discrimination, its pulpit a platform for pastors’ antilynching campaigns, and its basement hall a venue for social events. A National Register of Historic Places landmark, the church closed in 2014 and fell into disrepair.
But now, its former members and other supporters have come up with an ambitious plan to give it new life as a heritage and cultural center honoring both local Black history and the church’s most famous congregant, the civil rights activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois.
“This is how we can carry on the foundation they provided,” said Dennis Powell, president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch.
The W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy will become the first institution to focus on Du Bois’s legacy in North America, and the first devoted to African American history in the Berkshires, which has spanned centuries.
“We don’t have many institutions centered in Black history, present, and future,” said Sabrina Allard, vice president of the NAACP Berkshire County branch. “This is that space.”
Though Du Bois is a significant figure in late 19th- and early 20th-century American civil rights history, his humble beginnings in Massachusetts are less well known. Born in Great Barrington in 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in a relatively tolerant community. He graduated at the top of Great Barrington’s public high school class of 1884 — he was the only Black student — and the town’s First Congregational Church financed his college education.
Du Bois studied at Fisk University, the University of Berlin, and Harvard, becoming the first African American to receive a doctorate at Harvard in 1895. Scholars consider his books, most notably “The Souls of Black Folk” and “Black Reconstruction in America,” foundational texts in sociology and African American literature.
Du Bois also became a courageous fighter for Black equality, cofounding the NAACP, which has led the drive in passing some of the country’s most significant civil rights laws. And he helped arrange the first Pan-African Congresses, in which African leaders and allies overseas met to discuss decolonization and racial discrimination on the continent.
Though he lived in Atlanta, New York City, and Accra, Ghana, Du Bois remained connected to his Berkshire roots. He buried his first wife and first two children in Great Barrington, and often visited his hometown, including the Clinton AME Zion Church. (Du Bois and his second wife are buried in Accra.) Imagery of the “golden” Housatonic River and “great hills” of the Berkshires appears in speeches and reflections.
The Berkshires’ Black community encompasses descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, freed Black people escaping Reconstruction-era violence, and the Great Migration. Voting rights and integrated schools drew many Black people to the region. While discrimination relegated its Black community to lower-paying jobs in farming and service industries, some opened and maintained successful businesses.
Thus, Du Bois encountered a diverse group of Black Americans from an early age, and Tufts University professors Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge, two of the center’s historic advisers, agree that this upbringing shaped him into a civil rights advocate for African Americans of all kinds.
Recognition of Du Bois’s impact in his hometown, however, is fairly new. Because of his race and connections to the Communist Party — he supported socialism and later wrote capitalism was “doomed to self-destruction” — the Berkshires buried its connections to Du Bois for decades.
There was longtime local opposition to honoring him with public art, but in 2018, murals depicting Du Bois debuted in downtown Great Barrington. And in 2020, the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee unanimously voted to rename a middle school in Du Bois’s honor; a similar attempt at a local elementary school had failed 15 years earlier.
“I’m happy to see there’s a lot of excitement about being able to honor Du Bois, but there’s still people in our community who have a huge pushback against it,” Allard said.
Greenidge, codirector of Tufts University’s African American Trail Project, said the Black community that shaped Du Bois’s thinking and trajectory has also been underappreciated. For example, Greenidge said, people familiar with Du Bois know of the white church that funded his college education, but not about the local Black institutions that also influenced his activism.
“There’s a mainstream story about Du Bois as a guy whose brilliance emerges when he leaves Great Barrington‚” said Greenidge, who’s provided historic aid to the project. But “he comes from a Black community that affects how he developed as an intellectual and a human being.”
Aldon Morris, a sociology and African American studies professor at Northwestern University who has written several books on Du Bois, said that Du Bois’s support of communism led to his erasure, but that the recent rise of social justice movements has led to increased interest in his career. A site celebrating Du Bois is long overdue, Morris said.
“Du Bois said, ‘Truth crushed to the earth shall rise again,’ ” Morris said. “Though his work was erased, it’s come back in full force.”
Before Black residents could pool enough money to build their own church, they organized social circles in one another’s homes. Scholars haven’t found church records before 1936, but a teenage Du Bois sent dispatches to The New York Globe about his involvement in the church’s literacy and sewing societies, said Eugenie Sills, the center’s interim executive director. A copy of an 1894 speech Du Bois addressed to fellow churchgoers about his years in Germany has survived.
Everett Brinson, 83, of Aurora, Colo., who grew up in the Berkshires and attended the church from the 1940s to the early 1960s, said it was a significant social space for Black Berkshirites excluded from country clubs and public pools because of their race. Many church members were domestic workers, cooks, and laborers, but some were school administrators and business people, he said.
“Growing up in Great Barrington as a Black guy, I wasn’t often exposed to Black men and women professionals,” Brinson said. “That was formative.”
Wray Gunn, who chairs the Du Bois Center, was a congregant for over 70 years and said the effort to preserve the church has been “a long steady job . . . but we can do it day by day.”
The project has raised $2.5 million so far, including nearly $500,000 from the National Park Service and $117,000 from MassDevelopment and the Mass Cultural Council. Sills estimates they have about $5 million to go.
Sills, who is white, leads the center’s administrative and fund-raising efforts, and said she feels a personal duty to support the center, while Black leaders take charge of its mission.
“My ancestors are responsible for the mess we’re in,” she said, “and it’s my job to be a part of changing that.”
Field, director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, who has provided historic expertise to the center, said she hopes the space, in addition to offering exhibits and other programming, will also host scholars, creatives, and fellows from various places, including the world’s only other Du Bois center, in Ghana, through forums and residencies.
“Du Bois not only participated in Black institution building, but also supported Black social, cultural, and artistic traditions,” Field said.
The project’s proponents say they also hope the center will offer local Black children history they deserve to know about. Dennis Powell, who grew up in Pittsfield and is the center’s vice chair, said he didn’t know about Black heroes from the region until later in his life.
“Knowing that you can achieve . . . that’s something [children] can cling onto,” Powell said.
Correction: The subheadline of this story has been updated to reflect that the W. E. B. Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy is the first museum in North America honoring Du Bois’s legacy. Also, the story has been updated to clarify that Du Bois was the only Black student in his high school class.
Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @tianarochon.