Willie, as Du Bois was known in childhood, grew up in a “boy’s paradise,” enjoying all the natural pastimes the area afforded: climbing mountains, exploring caves, and swimming in the Housatonic River. With fewer than forty African American residents in town, Du Bois, the only black student in his elementary school, socialized on an equal footing with his classmates. It wasn’t until high school, he later wrote, that he realized that race mattered. Even after coming to this painful realization, Du Bois continued to excel in school, graduating at the top of his class in 1884. With the support of two important mentors, Maria Baldwin, an African American teacher in Great Barrington, and Frank Hosmer, the high school’s principal, Du Bois enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee with funds raised by the area Congregational churches.
At the age of 15 as the western Massachusetts correspondent for the New York Age, the New York Globe, and the Springfield Republican, Du Bois got an early start as both a keen observer of society and as a writer. In his role as correspondent, Du Bois often attended town meetings and took a strong interest in the politics of race. In September 1883 he observed in the Globe: “The colored men of Great Barrington hold the balance of power and have decided the election of many officers for a number of years. If they will only act in concert they may become a power not to be despised. It would be a good plan if they should meet and decide which way would be most advantageous for them to cast their votes.”
Du Bois’s history in Great Barrington is part of a larger history of African Americans in the region. By the time of his birth, his maternal relatives had been free homesteaders for nearly 100 years, and they were not alone. His great grandfather, Jackson Burghardt, purchased the five-acre site on Egremont Plain in 1795, and it is this ancestral home that Du Bois later acquired in 1928 with the hope of restoring it as a vacation retreat. Even before this dream was realized, Du Bois returned to Great Barrington many times. He resettled his wife, Nina Gomer Du Bois, to Great Barrington for the birth of both his children, and when his first-born, Burghardt Du Bois, died in infancy, he returned to the town to bury him in the Mahaiwe Cemetery. Later, Nina and his daughter, Yolande, were buried in the same plot.
Early efforts to recognize Du Bois as one of the area’s most notable native sons were initially met with local resistance. Some town residents objected to any commemoration of Du Bois because of controversy surrounding his decision both to join the Communist Party late in life at the age of 93 and to make Ghana his permanent residence. Over the years these final acts have been placed in historical context, and the recognition of Du Bois and his legacy in Great Barrington has gained momentum. Within the past decade, markers have been placed at his birth site and at his family’s grave sites, the Du Bois River Garden and Park was dedicated, and a mural celebrating his life was painted on the façade of Carr Brothers Hardware store. Recently, Du Bois was featured on the $5 note of Berkshares, a regional currency designed for use in the southern Berkshires and developed to support local business, and the site of his ancesteral home was re-opened, the first of a number of developments planned for the Du Bois Homesite (Great Barrington, Mass.).