Born in 1831 to Othello and Sarah Burghardt of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, not much is known of Mary Silvina’s early life. She most likely left Great Barrington for a time in her youth, perhaps to work in the large hotels along the upper Hudson and the Housatonic in northern Connecticut. It may be during this time that she met the father of her first-born son, Adelbert, who was born out of wedlock in 1862. According to family tradition, Adelbert’s father was Mary Silvina’s first cousin, John Burghardt, but Adelbert himself later claimed that his father was Charles Craig. Either way the fact that he was illegitimate tarnished Mary’s reputation and probably limited her future choices. Certainly by the time she met Alfred Du Bois—light skinned with Franco-Haitian ancestry, an appealing and exotic combination—she was ready to marry with the hope of improving her station in life.
The couple settled in Great Barrington where William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in 1868 a year after his parents married. Whatever home life they created didn’t last for long, however, and Alfred Du Bois left before Willie, as he was known, turned two. It is not clear why Alfred abandoned his wife and son, but Du Bois himself held onto the belief that his father was driven out of town by his mother’s clannish family. Mary Silvina moved with her son back to her parents’ home on Egremont Plain. Her father died when Willie was five, and her mother was forced to sell the family property. Sarah, Mary Silvina, and both boys moved into the center of Great Barrington. With the death of her mother a couple of years later, Mary Silvina’s fortune took another downward turn, and this time she was forced to relocate with her son to Railroad Street, home to the town’s saloons, gambling halls, and house of prostitution. It is here that Mary Silvina suffered the stroke that left her left leg and possibly arm disabled. From this time forward, her health would never recover, and Willie took on the role of her supporter throughout his later childhood.
With little hope of improving her own lot in life, Mary Silvina focused all her attention on the future of her younger son. Determined that Willie would have a good education, she moved once again, this time to a rented house on Church Street. There they remained throughout Willie’s high school years, and she lived to see her son graduate valedictorian of his class in 1884. Willie worked the year following his graduation and continued his studies as he prepared for college, a dream he might have ultimately denied himself. His mother’s death in March 1885 made the decision to leave Great Barrington an easy one. Always the loyal son, her death freed him from the burden of supporting her and allowed him to pursue his education unfettered. Even though Mary Silvina never saw her son’s success—and certainly his achievements would have been unimaginable to her—her quiet, determined will continued to influence Du Bois long after her death.