Remembering W.E.B. Du Bois and the history of activism in the Berkshires

Charlotte Kiechel

Over the last few months, members of the College community have been reflecting on what it means to exist within what is and has historically been a white and elite institution. Students and faculty members have worked to recognize the campus’s debt to the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans, while also calling attention to how the threat of anti-Black violence is a lived reality for many. And yet, while many community members continue to define our commitments to diversity, inclusivity, and equity, few have articulated how the history of the Berkshires – and the long history of activism within it – should inform such initiatives.

A recent field trip by HIST 340: “Anticolonial Europe: A History of Transnational Solidarity” to the boyhood home of W.E.B. Du Bois in Great Barrington, Mass., reminds us of how the history of the Berkshires could shape our efforts in imagining the Williams of the future.

Born 45 miles from Williamstown in 1868, Du Bois grew up in the shadow of the Civil War and amid Reconstruction. His maternal family, the Burghardts, was one of Great Barrington’s few Black families. And while Du Bois — because of his intellectual prowess — achieved exemplary academic success, becoming the first Black American to receive a doctorate from Harvard University, his life was shaped by the infrastructure of American racism. When traveling for work or leisure, Du Bois could not frequent all establishments, noting in 1917 that “ever-recurring race discrimination” made it “a puzzling query as to what to do with vacations.” In 1947, he trenchantly observed how American racism ran counter to the ideals of the republic, noting in a petition to the UN that the “color caste system” had led the U.S. government” to deny its political ideals, to falsify its philanthropic assertions, and to make its religion a vast hypocrisy.”

Du Bois was as much of an internationalist as he was a proud member of the Berkshires community. His first international trip occurred in the 1890s, when he traveled to Berlin to enroll in Humboldt University. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, he rose in prominence in the world’s circles of anticolonial resistance, organizing the continent’s first three pan-Africanist congresses. In 1963, he died in Accra, Ghana — five thousand miles from his place of birth, fitting for a man who continually worked to challenge nationalism’s primacy.

Central to his international travels was a commitment to evaluating systems of racial and economic inequality in a global frame — and it is here that the College community can find value in remembering Du Bois’s life and legacy. For Du Bois, the economic subjugation of Black Americans was illustrative of a global problem: the mutually reinforcing relationship between anti-Black racism and global capitalism. For Du Bois, one could not understand why cocoa farmers in West Africa were being exploited if one did not consider how British industrialists had internationalized their systems of economic exploitation. The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s collection of Du Bois’s papers reflects the global scope of his thinking, activism, and work — including Du Bois’s correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi (India), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), and Sylvia Pankhurst (England).

Of course, some of W.E.B. Du Bois’s political commitments and oversights might make members of the College community bristle. At times, he could be elitist. He remained an enthusiast of Stalin’s cult and legacy. Moreover, he subscribed to a narrative of U.S. history which overlooked the experiences and persecution of the country’s Indigenous peoples. By many of our current standards of what it means to be a progressive in 2022, Du Bois would have failed.

And yet, there is value in remembering Du Bois’s life of activism: His trajectory from Great Barrington to Accra points to how internationalism and activism have long been constitutive of life in the Berkshires. Du Bois developed most of his social justice activism in cities beyond the Berkshires — New York, Paris, and London. Nonetheless, he remained a “New England boy,” as he described in his 1940 autobiography. Great Barrington nourished Du Bois’s intellectual and political life in its early stages, and since then the Berkshires have continued to serve as a place of activism.

In 1970, workers in North Adams enacted a 10-week strike against the managerial practices of the Sprague Electric Company. Last year, local artists and individual community members protested against how the 1753 House — at the round- about across from the Center for Development Economics — participates in the erasure of the his- tory of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. Meanwhile, since 2016, a dozen academics and western Massachusetts residents have been working to realize the W.E.B. Du Bois Center for Freedom and Democracy in Great Barrington, a center that celebrates not only Du Bois’s life and legacy, but also the history of the Black Berkshires more generally.

At the October faculty meeting, President Maud S. Mandel announced the likely formation of a new public historian position to be overseen by the President’s Office. While the plans for this position remain preliminary, early conversations suggest that the historian would be tasked with engaging with how the College relates to the Berkshires’ multifaceted history. As a historian and Williams alum, I am excited about this initiative. For too long, many members of the College community have overlooked how histories of settler colonialism and systemic racism inform our material and intellectual lives in the Berkshires. Moving forward, Williams students and faculty members should continue to recognize our community’s overlapping histories of activism and social justice protest. To that end, it is worth returning to Du Bois’s life and legacy.

Charlotte Kiechel ’12 is a visiting assistant professor of history.