A Hometown Retrospective by Scott Christianson
W.E.B. Du Bois was born in Western Massachusetts less than three years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, which signaled the practical end of slavery. Great Barrington was a world apart from the Jim Crow South, where African Americans were subjected to racial segregation, intimidation, harassment, and violence. At the end of the Civil War, Great Barrington was a modest-sized town of 3,920 people, with fewer than thirty black families, most of which had resided there for generations. By 1880 the African-American population still totaled only 125 persons. Du Bois recalled that “the color line [there] was manifest and yet not absolutely drawn.”
Great Barrington blacks could vote and they enjoyed other rights of citizenship, even though the races generally didn’t mingle except at church, town, or school meetings. Although barred from working in the town’s largest industry—the mills—the town’s few blacks struggled to support themselves in farming or personal service, laboring as domestics, stewards, coachmen, ferrymen, cooks, or waiters for the better-off whites. Some were whitewashers, barbers, grocers or shopkeepers. One couple owned a moderately prosperous business.
Du Bois was fortunate to have arrived at a propitious time and place. “My town was shut in by its mountains and provincialism,” he wrote in Dusk of Dawn, “but it was a beautiful place, a little New England town nestled shyly in its valleys with something of Dutch cleanliness and English reticence .… The Housatonic yellowed by the paper mills, rolled slowly through its center; while Green River, clear and beautiful, joined it in the south. Main Street was lined with ancient elms; the hills held white pines and orchards and then faded up to magnificent rocks and caves which shut out the neighboring world.” He called it a “boy’s paradise.”
Great Barrington was set amidst one of the most progressive, pro-Union and economically secure regions of Massachusetts—a place known for its opposition to slavery and moderate position on race. Most residents were middle class. In his Autobiography, Du Bois explained:
“The women were housekeepers, with a few exceptions, like teachers, the postmistress, a clerk now and then in stores like Fassett’s shop for women’s apparel. The ownership of property, of homes and stores, of a few mills of various sorts, was fundamental, and the basis of social prestige. Most families owned their homes. There was some inherited wealthbut not in very large amounts. There were no idle rich and no outstanding ‘society.’ I dimly remember one rich old man who was apparently retired and did no work. He rode about town now and then in a carriage with a liveried coachman. I recall my astonishment when I learned that the splendid gentleman on the high front seat, with beaver hat, shining boots and gold braid, was not the owner. The owner was the little fat man crouched in the rear seat.”
Massachusetts also led the nation in education. A leading champion of public education and compulsory education, Horace Mann, had practiced law in nearby Norfolk and held several elective posts in the years leading up to Du Bois’s birth, and Great Barrington had its own strong advocates for expanded public education. Previously, public education beyond the primary grades had been reserved for whites who could afford to send their children to private schools.
A few months after Du Bois was born, the town voted $2000 to create town’s first public high school. In 1870 the community completed a solid two-story brick structure alongside the tiny old wooden elementary school that stood down a lane across from St. James Episcopal Church.
Great Barrington’s public schools would prove to be one of the key resources in Du Bois’s life, along with his family, church, and community. Without public education, he never would have been able to rise from his impoverished roots.
Du Bois was also molded by his conformity to the town’s strong New England Protestant ethic of hard work, self-discipline, frugality, diligence, and charity, which had been practiced there for more than a century. Interestingly, just as Du Bois was coming of age, some enlightened worshippers were expanding that ethic to include a newfound emphasis on science and scholarship—additional virtues that the young man would both embrace and later seek to inculcate in persons of color down South.
William Edward Du Bois [he added the Burghardt later, after he went to university] was born on February 23, 1868, to Mary Silvina Burghardt Du Bois (c1831-1885) and Alfred Du Bois (c1832-1887). The birth occurred in a rented house on the north side of Church Street that was owned by a former slave, Thomas Jefferson McKinley and his wife Minerva McKinley, who lived next door. (The structure vanished long ago at what is now 51 Church Street.)
Alfred Du Bois was a newcomer in town and nobody knew much about him—such as the fact that he had apparently married (and not divorced) at least two other women before then. Or that he had deserted the Army after serving briefly as a private in Louisiana. He had migrated from Albany, where he had been employed as a waiter in the exclusive Delavan hotel (a temperance institution).
Shortly after arriving in town he and Mary began a courtship that culminated in their wedding in February 1867.
Alfred’s father, Alexander Du Bois, had been born to Dr. James Du Bois of Kingston, New York, a white physician, landholder and slave owner of French Huguenot descent, who had sired at least three sons and a daughter with his slave mistresses on the tiny island of Long Cay in the Bahamas.
In 1812 the doctor had taken two of his lighter-colored sons, Alexander and John, to the United States, and treated them as his own free heirs. He enrolled them in the exclusive Episcopalian Cheshire School for Boys in Cheshire, Connecticut, so they could receive a classical education.
Both brothers were passed off as white, and John would continue to call himself white, whereas Alexander would later identify himself as a Negro. This family history would later provide Du Bois one of his early lessons in the arbitrary nature of “race.” The episode also indicates that he was not the first of his lineage to experience high-quality education.
In the midst of the brothers’ studies, however, Dr. Du Bois died and they were forced to fend for themselves. Alexander absconded from his apprenticeship as a shoemaker and made his way to New Haven, where he married Sarah Marsh Lewis in 1823 and they proceeded to have several children, including Alfred.
Alfred was born in Haiti and raised in New Haven. After arriving in Great Barrington, he worked as a barber with Mary’s elder brother, James Burghardt. Light-skinned and handsome, the groom stood 5 feet 6 inches tall, and possessed an air of higher-class refinement. But his light color and “extra manners” rankled Mary’s conservative relatives.
Mary came from a large clan of local yeoman farmers who clustered together near the Green River. Their ancestors had been held in bondage in the region by some of the early Dutch and English colonists before earning their freedom. Shortly after the American Revolution, the first newly free Burghardts had settled in the area of Egremont Plain. Legend said that one of their forebears was Mum Bet, also known as Elizabeth Freeman, (c1742-1829), who in 1781 became famous as the first slave in Massachusetts to win her freedom through court action (a case brought in the County Court of Common Pleas in Great Barrington), but no historian has found documentary evidence proving that Du Bois was actually her direct descendant.
Mary’s father, Othello Burghardt, and his wife/her mother Sarah (or Sally) Burghardt (who was from nearby Hillsdale, New York), owned a tiny homestead (measuring only one-fifth of an acre) about three miles from the center of Great Barrington. They were known as hard-working, church-going, respectable and deeply conservative people. Intolerant of drinking, gambling, or sexual promiscuity, they knew the alphabet and spoke in an idiomatic and unadorned New England tongue. None had advanced further than the lower elementary school grades.
Little is known about Mary’s early life before Alfred, except that in 1862, at about age thirty-one, she had produced an illegitimate child, named Idelbert (or Adelebert). The father did not come forward. According to Du Bois’s accounts, the father was rumored to be Mary’s first cousin, which had made their union taboo — not unlike the local Indian legend immortalized in erstwhile Great Barrington lawyer William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Monument Mountain.” However, Idelbert himself would later identify a different man (a local coachman) as his father.
Whatever the paternity, having the child out of wedlock was the source of some embarrassment for the Burghardts. Mary raised the child as a single mother, working as a domestic for some of the town’s wealthier white families. Her parents and siblings also helped her to scrape by.
After she married Albert, some members of her family did not welcome him into the clan. The marriage didn’t last and within two years he was gone. This loss plunged Mary into poverty and depression. She took refuge with her parents in Egremont Plain and set about trying to figure out how to make a better life for herself and her sons.
But Mary’s woes continued. Her father died of gangrene in September 1872; her mother had to sell the family homestead, leaving her homeless again.
Mary relocated the boys back to downtown Barrington in order to be close to her work and the boys’ school. By virtue of her membership in St. James Episcopal Church on Taconic Avenue, she did domestic work for some of the white communicants and also was able to take up quarters over the stables of the Sumner estate, located two doors south of the church. (The property was demolished in 1899 to make way for Taconic Avenue.)
As Du Bois later described her, “Mother was dark shining bronze, with smooth skin and lovely eyes; there was a tiny ripple in her black hair; and she had a heavy, kind face.” He also recounted, “She gave one the impression of infinite patience, but a curious determination was concealed in her softness.”
That tenacity was greatly tested when Mary suffered a stroke that paralyzed her left side, thereby hampering her ability to support the household. Twelve-year-old Idelbert was already working some jobs to help, but the family was hard-pressed. The trio had to leave the Sumner refuge. Nevertheless, she insisted that her youngest child would pursue his education to the fullest.
Du Bois was a seven-year-old second-grader when they moved to a dingy second-floor apartment at the top of Railroad Street near the freight yard. This time they shared space with a poor white family that was even more distressed, and the rough neighborhood swarmed with drunks, gamblers, saloons, and at least one house of prostitution. “I had to use my wits to survive living in this part of Great Barrington,” Du Bois later recalled.
Although partly crippled, Mary continued to work as much as she could, taking in boarders to help pay the rent, and accepting “unobtrusive charity.” The three of them were still cushioned by her large extended family and prosperous white ladies for whom she had worked. Du Bois recalled that “some of the white citizens took her and me into a sort of overseeing custody.”
Somehow, his mother managed. Years later, Du Bois marveled that they “must often have been on the edge of poverty. Yet I was not hungry or in lack of suitable clothes, or made to feel unfortunate.”
Du Bois was raised to believe that they lived in a place where virtually everyone — except for some of the idle rich and the lower-class rabble — was of the middle class and worked for a living. His mother drilled into his head that Christian virtues and education would be his salvation. “If others of my family, of my colored kin,” she quietly insisted, “had stayed in school instead of quitting early for small jobs, they could have risen to equal whites.” Idelbert left school out of economic necessity. But education would be Du Bois’s way up the economic ladder.
Salvation through education
Du Bois ordinarily at 6 am to begin his rigorous routine—a strict regimen that he would follow till the end of his life. After breakfast and chores, he would walk over to Center Primary School, the tiny, three-room wooden schoolhouse that stood under a chokecherry tree across the lane from St. James Episcopal Church. Du Bois later described it as a “wee wooden schoolhouse,” yet it was a haven for him and a place where he could shine.
For ten months a year, five days a week, the school day started at 9 am with fifty or so pupils gathering together for a brief devotion and song. Then they began the simple curriculum of “reading, writing and arithmetic; grammar, geography and history.” After a noon lunch break, the classes resumed their training from 1-4 pm, with constant drilling. All pupils were required to stand and recite their lessons, and quizzed individually as well as by grade level.
The teachers were mature white women who had been trained for two years in State Normal Schools. His first teacher, Miss Mary Cross, was “stern and inflexible, but fair and kind,” remembered Du Bois. “She was one of my favorites. And because I was a good student, I became a favorite of hers.”
Du Bois kept up perfect attendance and showed himself to possess both natural gifts and drive that made him one of the best students in the school. “Later I would begin to recognize that others had talents that even hard work could not explain,” he recalled. “Whereas I was good with the written word, another student was better at arithmetic, another with art, another with sports, and so forth.” Soon it became quite clear to him that education would be his salvation. And his success would be his mother’s redemption.
Du Bois’s success in school seemed to give his mother great pleasure and he did everything her could to please her.
Du Bois’s only playmates were white. He got along well with the other children and was often the center of attention. From an early age he “annexed the rich and well-to-do as his natural companions,” and stayed away from the persons of the lowest social station. Skinny and nonathletic, he was only an average baseball player but he could run fast, and sometimes proved himself a group leader. He was polite and well-mannered, assertive but discreet. Gradually, he acquired considerable skills in race relations, both with his peers and adults. But at age ten he came head to head with some hard realities.
“I remember well when the shadow swept across me…. In a wee wooden schoolhouse, something put it into the boys’ and girls’ heads to buy gorgeous visiting-cards—ten cents a package—and exchange. The exchange was merry, till one girl, a tall newcomer, refused my card—refused it peremptorily, with a glance. Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life, and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”
The “most important” church
The family also drew strength from their church. In 1878, when Du Bois was ten, Mary joined the First Congregational Church on Main Street. (He later described it as the best attended and “most important” church in town.) Although the church’s first colored member dated back to 1745, Mary was the only Negro on its membership roll at the time.
The pastor, the Reverend Evarts Scudder (who presided from 1867-1886), was known as conservative and unyielding, but beloved, and he was especially friendly to Mary. It is likely that some of his better-off members—probably one of her employers—had vouched for her. Born in 1833, Scudder was a graduate of Williams College and Andover Theological Seminary. A big supporter of missionary activities, he was a skilled organizer and fund-raiser who excelled at soliciting major contributions from wealthy congregants.
The liberal Sunday school was run by a prominent attorney, Judge Justin Dewey, Jr., who was a great champion of public education. As a deacon in the church, Dewey introduced a “new spirit” of scholarship and scientific studies into the school’s curriculum and urged members to be more concerned about “rising social problems.” However this challenge to church orthodoxy put him in open conflict with Scudder, who denounced him from the pulpit in 1879, resulting in Dewey’s switch to St. James just as Mary was leaving St. James. Yet the new spirit was like a genie that had been out of the bottle.
Du Bois took his Sunday school classes very seriously and especially enjoyed showing off his newfound knowledge of the Greek phrase for “the truth shall set you free.”
In 1880 Mary moved Du Bois and herself with her widowed brother James and his two-year-old daughter to a small, homely cottage on Church Street. It was situated only a few diagonal paces from the rear of the First Congregational Church and only a two-minute walk from the public school.
Everything the boy wished for seemed to be close by. The home had a living room, a sitting room, a pantry, and two attics bedrooms. And although there was no plumbing or electric, sometimes he enjoyed having his own room for the first time in his life. It was in a much better neighborhood than their Railroad Street lodging.
The house was owned by Dr. Jonathan Cass, a white physician in the US government medical service who had served as an assistant surgeon to the 40th Massachusetts during the Civil War. Cass had a daughter who went to school with Willie. The rent was $4 per month, but Mary apparently lived there rent free through some charitable arrangement through the church. The family would live there for four idyllic years as Du Bois continued his schooling.
As his mother’s health worsened, Du Bois maintained a variety of odd jobs. Saturdays would see him mowing lawns, distributing tea from the new A&P store, and chopping wood for the spinster Smith sisters. On weekdays he would deliver copies of the Springfield Republican newspaper, stoke the stove at Madame L’Hommedieu’s millinery shop, and fetch milk from old Mr. Taylor’s cows on lower Main Street.
Some of these tasks put Du Bois into contact with townspeople who would become mentors and role models as well as employers. The white-bearded Charles J. Taylor (1824-1904), for instance, was the local historian who was completing his History of Great Barrington. Working as a paperboy familiarized Du Bois with the contents and operations of the region’s leading newspaper. Most of all, the constant odd jobs gave the boy a deep-rooted sense of personal responsibility and a chance to interact with persons of different classes and social backgrounds.
Du Bois stood out as one of only two African-American pupils in the high school and when the other boy eventually dropped out, he became even more determined to best his white schoolmates academically. He became very confident, even arrogant. Sometimes he reveled in showing off his talents. His dedicated and forward-thinking high-school principal, Frank A. Hosmer, was so impressed with the boy’s abilities that he encouraged Du Bois to plan for college, thereby becoming his most crucial supporter and mentor next to his mother.
Du Bois took the standard “classical” college preparatory course, consisting of four years of Latin and three of Greek; arithmetic, algebra, and geometry in three of the four years; one year of English; a year of ancient and American history; and introductions to geography, physiology, and hygiene. He also was required to present compositions, declamations, and recitations, and perform occasional exercises in reading, spelling, and music. He appears to have excelled in all of these.
But Du Bois’s poverty meant that he couldn’t afford the necessary textbooks. Although his mother continued to labor as much as she could despite her weakened physical condition, and he performed as many odd jobs as he could squeeze into his crowded schedule, there still was not enough money to finance his public high school education.
So Hosmer went out and solicited funds from prominent members of the community. One of the most helpful benefactors was Parley A. Russell (1838-1916), the wealthy local mill owner. Parley’s wife, Mrs. Celeste S. Gilbert Russell, employed Mary Du Bois as her housekeeper at their “Brightside” home on West Avenue. When the Russells’ frail and disabled son Louis was struggling in his private school, Du Bois helped him with his lessons and they became friends. Then Mrs. Russell paid for Du Bois’s Greek books.
Du Bois later wrote that Hosmer was one of those white men who believed that promising black youngsters should be prepared so that they would be able to offer leadership to the black masses. He therefore, took it on himself to guide my schooling without showing condescension or favoritism.” The boy was very fortunate to be under his wing.
Hosmer came to the boy’s rescue in other ways as well. On one occasion, Willie and some boys were caught filching grapes from the yard of a wealthy white citizen. Ordinarily such an escapade would have been of little consequence, but the resident pressed charges.
“But the judge thought that a smart, spirited, poor Black boy like me would be better off learning a trade under lock and key,” Du Bois later wrote. “They were going to send me to reform school. But my principal, Mr. Frank Hosmer, stood up for me and I only received a stern admonition. That incident really disturbed me and taught me a valuable lesson about what many whites thought about Blacks.” It was his first encounter with racial injustice.
Du Bois rewarded Hosmer’s confidence by compiling a perfect behavior record in school, completing his college-preparatory course with high honors, and distinguishing himself in various extracurricular activities such as the school plays, the school newspaper, and the presidency of the high-school lyceum.
In addition to his school and church activities and his odd jobs, Du Bois used his connections in the community to develop his personal interests. Great Barrington being a small town, he came to become acquainted with many people and his mother encouraged him to seek out those who might assist him in some way.
One of his schoolmates, Johnny Morgan, lived on East Street, and Du Bois knew many of the residents in that neighborhood. Johnny’s father, John Morgan, was a Welchman who ran a little bookshop, newsstand, and general store located in the rear of the downtown post office. “He took an interest in me and allowed me to look at the magazines and periodicals before he put them up for sale,” Du Bois later recalled.
I went to the post office daily, not that I was expecting any mail, but because of the magazines in the store. I can remember one tremendous bargain Mr. Morgan made with me. It was one morning in 1882, my second year in high school. I saw in store’s window a gorgeous edition of Macaulay’s History of England. It was a five-volume set, and I really wanted it. But I could not afford it. Mr. Morgan suggested that I could pay for it in installments. This was an unusual offer back then, and I seized upon it. For five months I paid 25 cents a week from the wages I received from my small jobs. That Christmas I took my precious purchase home. It was through Mr. Morgan’s store that I got my first exposure to the larger world outside of Great Barrington. I can remember very early on seeing pictures of people like U.S. Grant and Tweed of New York. And later, I would see pictures of the presidential candidates Tilden and Hayes.
Access to the newspapers, magazines and books exposed Du Bois to the world outside Great Barrington. He became more conversant on social issues and began to recognize many of the leading writers of the day as well as classical works in history, politics, and fiction. Morgan also helped arrange for the fifteen-year-old to become a local Great Barrington correspondent to the Springfield Republican, the most widely circulated paper in western Massachusetts.
It was also probably through Morgan’s shop that Du Bois became a contributor to two of the most influential black publications of that time, the New York Globe and its successor the Freedman. The papers chronicled African-American life throughout the nation, including social affairs in the northeast, and they kept their local touch by publishing short items that were supplied by dozens of correspondents.
The owner and editor, T. Thomas Fortune, was the dean of Negro journalists and a major commentator on “Afro-American” (as he coined the term) politics and social affairs. Beginning in April 1883, Du Bois began filing regular signed dispatches for the Globe, making him the nation’s youngest black journalist. Some of Fortune’s other contributors who would later become famous included Ida B. Wells and Victoria Earle Matthews. Du Bois ended up contributing at least 24 signed pieces in the Globe and its successor the Freeman, between April 10, 1883 and May 16, 1885 — an impressive output.
Du Bois was becoming more race-conscious. He later explained:
I became more subtly aware of my racial status. My sensitivity helped me avoid may potential embarrassing situations. I learned to not go anywhere I was not invited. If no one wanted me around they only had simply to not invite me. Sometimes I would flame as I strolled off into the mountains and viewed the world at my feet or gazed across the hills. There were other days when I would cry secret tears, as I began to turn inward.
Part of the impetus occurred through his involvement with the town’s black community, notably the Clinton African Methodist Episcopal society. Barrington’s number of black residents was growing as more African Americans migrated from the South to escape Jim Crow. These freedpeople and other blacks from town banded together for meetings in homes and at Sumner Hall until they could afford to build their own church. Du Bois was among those who attended the society’s events.
“We observed that they had joyous services, and organized activities and clubs,” remembered Du Bois. “I would become secretary to their women’s Sewing Society, probably because of my reading and writing ability. I would sometimes offer help in their activities.” Some of his black relatives and friends—Burghardts, Freemans, Pipers, Woosters, and Masons—also participated.
Jason Cooley (1836-1911) and his wife Almira were two of the church’s members who most impressed Du Bois. They were the town’s most prosperous business people and deeply involved in black community affairs.
In his first dispatch to the Globe, Du Bois reported attending the AME Zion Sewing Society monthly supper at the Cooley’s home. This would prove to be the first of innumerable accounts he would write about black social events and the beginning of a life-long collaboration with women.
In search of more things to write about, he also attended the town meetings. “There I observed discussions on various issues followed by voting,” said Du Bois, and “in this way, I gradually learned to appreciate the workings of democracy.”
Despite his young age, Du Bois brashly fashioned himself as a social critic. At one town meeting he noticed that there were no “colored” men in attendance, and so he mentioned it in one of his Sewing Circle pieces for the Globe, published in September 1883, when he was fifteen years old. “The colored men of Great Barrington hold the balance of power and have decided the election of many officers for a number of years,” he recalled. “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.”
In another article, Du Bois suggested that “the best thing for colored people to do would be to create a literary society.” He also lamented the lack of local businessmen among “our people.” He advised “those intending to replenish their libraries to consult the Globe correspondent before so doing.” He criticized the lack of attendance at the AME Zion Church and condemned “another wrangle” in the black church at Lee as a “shocking scene.” He urged African-American men to form a law-and-order society to curb the sale of liquor, and constantly rebuked his fellow blacks for taking too little interest in politics.
Prior to that time Du Bois had only ventured as far as Pittsfield to visit some of his cousins, and stayed once with an uncle who was a barber in Amherst. Du Bois took his first trip outside the region and the experience had a profound effect on him.
His paternal grandfather, Alexander Du Bois, was eighty years old and had lost his third wife. The widow he was courting, Mrs. Annie Green, knew Du Bois’s father and was aware of the problems between Alfred and Mary. Upon marrying Alexander, Annie wrote Mary saying it would be good for Alexander to see his grandson and get to know him. Du Bois’s mother agreed, hoping that the grandfather might even be able to help her son with his schooling. He remembered with appreciation that “she put together enough funds for me to take my first great venture out into the world.”
In July, Willie traveled alone by train to New Bedford, Massachusetts, to meet his grandfather for the first time. The old man was short, thickset, and erect in appearance, with very fine manners and an air of sophistication. A retired ship’s steward, he associated with some of the leading black citizens in that distinguished whaling city. Although their exchanges were somewhat strained, Du Bois learned some new information about his father as well as other family history.
On the way back home, he had another eye-opening experience when he stopped to visit a friend of his maternal grandmother in Providence. The man took him to the Emancipation Day picnic at Rocky Point on Narragansett Bay, commemorating Great Britain’s emancipation of the slaves in the West Indies. “To my astonishment, I saw ten thousand Negroes of every shade and color,” attested Du Bois — sights he never could have imagined in Great Barrington.
My mouth hung open as I observed the whole gorgeous gamut of the American Negro world; the swaggering men, the beautiful girls, the laughter and gaiety, the unhampered self-expression. I was both astonished and inspired. I saw no evidence of poverty or degradation, only the equality of their mannerisms and styles.
Du Bois also stopped by Springfield and Albany to visit his brother Idelbert, who told him more stories about their family.
On June 27, 1884, Du Bois was one of seven boys and six girls to graduate from Great Barrington High School. He was the first black person to receive a high school diploma. The ceremony at Town Hall drew a large crowd. His classmate Minnie Ford spoke on the pleasures of reading, and the class valedictorian, Abbie Joyner, delivered his oration on “Knownothingism.” But the warmest reception —several standing ovations — went to Du Bois, for his impassioned speech commemorating the recently deceased anti-slavery agitator and the conscience of New England abolitionism, Wendell Phillips. Du Bois never forgot the face of his dear mother, whose health had been constantly fading, beaming with pride.
Despite his triumph, there was now the hurdle of how Du Bois might be able to attend college. Besides the “nagging problem of finance,” he felt obliged to take care of his ailing mother. Since he was still only sixteen years old, he yielded to the advice to work and study for a year before going off to college.
The following March his mother died from an apoplectic stroke. Du Bois’s family and community rallied around him for support. He went to live with his Aunt Minerva Newport.
It was then that Du Bois enjoyed a stroke of good luck. For it seems that Mrs. Mary Frances Sherwood Hopkins, the widow of the famed railroad tycoon (and one of the richest men in America) Mark Hopkins, had returned to her former hometown to build a castle for herself near the public school. Assisting her in the grand project was her young mulatto steward she had brought with her from San Francisco, J. Carlisle Dennis. Her decorator (and soon-to-become her husband) Edward F. Searles, described Dennis as “a well-educated young man, quick, competent and in complete charge of Mrs. Hopkins’ local business affairs.” (Many townspeople, including Du Bois, believed that Dennis was her lover.)
As soon as Dennis arrived in town, he became the celebrated king of local colored society. “I used to meet him almost daily on my way to school and we had most interesting conversations,” Du Bois later recalled. “He was perhaps the first to tell me of his employer’s plan to build a new mansion of blue granite, between the old home and the school yard and rising above the lovely stretch of meadows.” Dennis was so impressed, he wrote a letter to the Globe in which he lavished praise on the young scholar:
Du Bois entered school under many disadvantages; being his widowed mother’s only support, he was compelled to perform odd jobs between school hours for the friendly neighbors. By persistent, industrious effort he has accomplished the results hoped for… and is considered by all who know him to be one of the most promising young colored men of the times. Du Bois is the youngest of his class, being only sixteen.
After consulting with the Du Bois family, Dennis hired Du Bois as a timekeeper on the construction project, at the “fabulous salary of one dollar a day,” whereas before he had never earned more than one dollar a week. Dennis also hired a well-known black couple, William and Alice Crosley, to occupy the carriage house as the rest of the castle was being built. William served as a coachman for Mrs. Hopkins and Alice was a house servant. They too participated in the Sewing Circle and other activities out of the AME church.
Du Bois wanted to go to Harvard because of its reputation and nearness to Great Barrington. But his high school was not up to its standards.
Some of the leading white citizens advising him felt that he should go to college at Fisk University in Tennessee, a black college that had been founded by the American Missionary Society in 1866. The most prominent of these advisers was the Reverend Charles C. C. Painter, the father of Charlie, one of Du Bois’s school chums. The Painters lived near the castle where Du Bois worked as a timekeeper. Besides being a pastor of the First Congregational Church, an expert on Indian affairs, and an editor, Painter was also a professor on Fisk’s faculty.
Hosmer went to the Reverend Painter on Du Bois’s behalf and they worked out a plan for a scholarship so that he could attend Fisk.
The arrangement called for contributions from his mother’s Congregational Church and three other churches in Connecticut that Painter had once pastored. Each was to furnish him with $25 per year for the duration of his college life. The family also received financial assistance from Hosmer and some other local educators.
While his family was worried about the prospect of him going south to the land of Jim Crow, Du Bois instead saw it as an opportunity to avoid the “spiritual isolation” he had begun to experience as a result of growing older. There were no prospective mates for him in Great Barrington. And no prospective career either. There was simply no opportunity for him in his hometown.
Nashville seemed exciting. “I would get a chance to be around my people like those I saw at the picnic in Providence,” Du Bois later wrote. “I had flashbacks of when the Congregational Church had a Hampton Quartet sing some Black folksongs. I remembered being thrilled and moved to tears by hearing and feeling something so moving, something that was so deeply my own.” As Du Bois prepared to enter the next phase of his life, he indicated his interest in identifying with other African Americans outside his own family and region.
So in September 1885, the seventeen-year-old Du Bois donned his best clothes and gathered his belongings for the trip to Nashville.
The story of his rise in Great Barrington is inspiring, both for what it reveals about him personally and as a shining example of the caring community that spawned him. It’s a lesson that should be re-taught today.