Local Veterans Speak Against W.E.B. Du Bois Statue Plans
At a time when monuments connected to slavery and segregation are being challenged across the country, an effort in the Berkshires to put up a new statue for civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois is facing a controversy of its own.
“We’re taking statues down all over the country for one reason or another. Whether we disagree, that’s history. We’re not putting statues up nowadays. I don’t think a statue on public property should be at the library,” said Housatonic VFW Commander and Republican Town Committee Chair Andy Moro at the most recent library trustees meeting.
After the town’s library Board of Trustees voted to support a developing plan for a proposed statue of Du Bois on the grounds of one of their two libraries, More wrote letters to the media criticizing the move on the grounds that Du Bois expressed support for communism and praised Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin. Moro said veterans should have been consulted before the trustees cast that vote.
Moro said that he wasn’t opposed to the Du Bois statue itself in principle, but would rather it not be on taxpayer property. He proposed that it instead be at Du Bois’ historic homestead, where Moro said it would attract more visitors to that site.
In respons to Moro’s letter, library trustees chair G. Patrick Hollenbeck invited Moro and other veterans to speak at the following meeting of the trustees, which happened to fall on flag day.Hollenbeck began the meeting by inviting Moro to lead those present in the Pledge of Allegiance.
“The essence of this library is that it’s a people’s library where idea can exchange… What better place is there to have a debate about public art than here,” Hollenbeck said.
Moro gave his criticisms of Du Bois’ legacy with research he said was from Wikipedia, UMass and other sources. Moro noted that Du Bois joined the communist party in 1961 (when the scholar was in his nineties), sympathized with communism and socialism throughout much of his life, won the Lenin Peace Prize, travelled to Nazi Germany before World War II and gave a warm eulogy to Josef Stalin in which he praised the dictator for “fooling the world, especially America”.
For another speaker, Charlie Plungis, Du Bois praise of Stalin and communism was a personal affront, Plungis spoke about his own Lithuanian heritage and the mass murder that Stalin had wrought upon much of Eastern Europe. Stalin arguably brought about the deaths of more people than any other figure in history: at least 20 million, with some estimates closer to 60 million.
“Stalin starved 7 million Ukrainians just because he thought they wanted to be free. Think Iowa. Think Nebraska. Think other states.”
(Plungis’ wife Kathy Plungis is a library trustee and the group’s secretary. She was not present at the earlier meeting when the trustees present voted unanimously in support of the statue.)
Charlie Plungis said support of Stalin was unforgivable and that it was shameful to consider putting up a statue of a man who had done so, despite Du Bois’ other accomplishments.
“He had the ability to dissociate himself with Stalin,” Plungis continued. “He chose not to.He defended and praised him. This is man we want to put up a statue of? In Great Barrington?”
Moro and other speakers gave remarks to try and dispel criticisms that their opposition to Du Bois came from racism. Moro said that he had received more than 50 pieces of hate mail in response to a post online where he gave his opinions on the Du Bois issue. Moro said another internet commentator had taken a picture of him and labeled it, “I’m Andy Moro and I’m a racist and a bigot.”
Moro offered as defense the fact that, when he was a Select Board member, he helped some supporters of a sign celebratingGreat Barrington as Du Bois’ birthplace get the issue on the town warrant even though they had missed some procedural marks and Moro had mixed feelings about the sign.
“As a representative of somebody who wanted me to do something for them, I did,” Moro said. “I wasn’t 100 percent in favor of it, but I wasn’t against it My thought at the time was that citizens will let us know. I don’t think I’m a racist and a bigot, but that’s what other people will judge.”
Another speaker, Charles Flynn of Egremont, said he had 20 years of experience in the military, had been a Navy commander and had two sons who had done tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Flynn said he didn’t think the library was the right place for a Du Bois statue, but he strongly denied that there was any racism motivating him or other veterans.
“We in the military don’t have a color line,’ Flynn said. “We’re not racist. We serve with blacks and Hispanics. When we’re serving, we don’t look at the color of their skin or their slant of their eyes. We look at how they serve our country and we have their backs.”
Flynn said that if there was a figure for a statue outside the library, it should be someone who demonstrates learning, reading and respect for the community.
Supporters of the Du Bois statue spoke after the veterans and other critics had made their remarks. Justin Jackson, an assistant professor history at Bard College at Simons’s Rock, noted that the military absolutely had a poor line for most of Du Bois’ life. Harry Truman gave the order to desegregate the military in 1948, years after World War II. Jackson continued that, while Du Bois had a lifelong interest in socialism and communism as a way to combat colonialism, he criticized the Communist Party at various times and didn’t join the party until he was in his 90s.
“And you have to understand why that was,” Jackson said. “One: he had had his passport taken from him for traveling under the Foreign Agents Act. He had been persecuted for being a part of the World Peace Movement to fight the scourge of nuclear weapons that both the US and USSR were engaged in. And he joined a few days after the Supreme Court of the United States supported the McCarran Act which required communists and people suspected of the Communist Party to register with the government.”
Jackson said that joining the Communist Party at that time would look like an act of defiance against an unjust registry. Then Du Bois left the country for Ghana, motivated in part by his support for Pan-Africanism and historical interest in Africa.
Another speaker at the meeting, Emily DeVoti, a Great Barrington native and frequent Mason Library patron, said the question of honoring Du Bois should be a simple one: “Du Bois wasn’t Stalin,” she said.
Despite being born in Great Barrington and raised mostly in Sheffield, DeVoti said she didn’t learn about Du Bois until she was in college at Princeton, where she was fascinated and excited to read about a scholarly figure with global significance who was born in her hometown.
“As a resident I was thrilled to hear that there was a statue of Du Bois,” she said. “And I was thrilled to her it would be at the library. I bring my fie-year old son here every day. He knows about Du Bois now, and that was his first lesson in racial equality.”
Randy Weinstein, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, was present at the meeting but did not speak. In a subsequent interview with the Record, Weinstein said the conversation at the trustees meeting was productive and that he remained steadfast in his belief that Du Bois was the right figure for a library statue.
If you’re talking about a figure that represents learning, reading and respect for our community, I think Du Bois and the library is a match made in heaven,” Weinstein said.
He noted that Du Bois showed patriotism in World War I when he encouraged Black men to enlist in the fight against Germany, despite Du Bois’ own admiration for German arts and scholarship (Du Bois studied in Berlin) and despite the U.s.’s segregated military and society. Additionally, Weinstein said, Du Bois never lost his love for Great Barrington.
“In 1899 he buried his two-year-old boy Burghardt here. Fifty-one years later, in 1950, he buried his first wife, Nina, here in Mahaiwe Cemetery. Eleven years later, he’s now 93 years old, he makes his trip from New York City to bury his daughter Yolanda here.”
Du Bois continued to exchange letters with students at the local high school, often encouraging them to protect the environment. In terms of scholarship, Du Bois’ History of Reconstruction is commonly credited with overcoming the previously held racist notion that whites in the south had to act as paternal figures to Black folks for their own good.
Weinstein said he wouldn’t shy away from Du Bois’ faults but that they shouldn’t prevent him from being a celebrated figure.
“I can understand him looking elsewhere for answers. Sometimes very naively.Sometimes with blinders on and I think that was the case with Stalin. But should that be the sum total of his life? That at one time he supported Stalin who just years earlier had been part of that trio with Roosevelt and Churchill that destroyed Hitler?”
He continued, “I have come to admire people’s imperfections, it makes their strengths stand out so much more. I think that’s the case with Du Bois.”
Weinstein said that he and other supporters have been in conversations with town clerks in West Stockbridge, Stockbridge and Great Barrington about getting a non-binding referendum on whether or not to rename a regional school after Du Bois on the ballot for the three towns in November, which can hopefully give a clear indication how the majority of folks I the area feel either way about his legacy.
“At the end of the day, my sense (from the trustee meeting) was that we continue on with this dialogue and in the meantime I learned an awful lot,” Weinstein said.
Hollenbeck said on the Tuesday after the meeting the all the materials that the speakers submitted would be available to the public at both the Mason and Ramsdell libraries. The statue is certainly not a done deal and conversation will continue, he added.