Born “by a golden river and in the shadow of two great hills” in 1868, W.E.B. Du Bois had a lifelong attachment to his ancestral home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Black Burghardts of western Massachusetts were one of the oldest families in the region, with family members serving in the American Revolution, Shays’ Rebellion, and the Civil War. Du Bois’s fond memories of Great Barrington stayed with him always, and even late in his life he reflected on his early love of New England. Idealizing the scenery of his childhood in his autobiography published in 1968, Du Bois remembered the natural beauty of the Berkshires: “the valley was wreathed in grass and trees and crowned to the eastward by the bulk of East Mountain … westward the gill was gentler, rolling up to gorgeous sunsets and cloud-swept storms.”
After decades of traveling the world, Du Bois’s desire to reconnect with his New England heritage prompted him to inquire about the ownership of the Burghardt family homestead in 1925, with an eye towards purchasing the land for himself to serve as a retreat. Knowing of this interest, a group of friends formed the Du Bois Testimonial Committee to raise money to purchase the site for Du Bois’s 60th birthday. Each committee member pledged $100, and a solicitation letter mailed to other friends and colleagues raised even more. Collecting a total of $3,038.41, the committee purchased the homesite and presented the deed to Du Bois in April 1928.
The house that remained on the site, however, needed a complete restoration in order to be habitable. On the recommendation of a friend, Du Bois contacted architect Joseph Vance of Pittsfield in the spring of 1928 to see if he might assist in restoring the homestead, little by little, at a modest cost. Vance quickly consented, but soon admitted that the $3,000 budget set aside would not be enough to complete the cottage’s restoration. Instead of a complete overhaul, Vance suggested Du Bois begin by protecting the house, starting with a new roof and foundation. Even with the scaled down plans, more bad news was to follow: the old well on the property was insufficient and the house lay beyond the Great Barrington fire district, so there was no possibility of connecting into the town’s water source.
Because the property required more attention than first anticipated, Du Bois arranged for Warren H. Davis to assist by providing on-site supervision of the work, including the hiring of local tradesmen to being the restoration. Earlier, Davis, a land speculator and lumberman who occasionally served as an intermediary in real estate transactions for the Black community of Great Barrington, had negotiated the transfer of the Burghardt family homestead to Du Bois. Davis’s reputation locally was one of dependability, a reputation put to the test within his community as the restoration dragged on over years and neighbors complained of the property’s continued state of disrepair.
By the 1940s, after more than a decade of setbacks, due chiefly to financial strains and the challenge of coordinating the restoration long-distance, Davis urged Du Bois to sell the site. Finally in 1954 Du Bois agreed to give up the homestead to his neighbor. By this time the deteriorated house had completely fallen in on itself, and all that remained standing was the cellar and the chimney repaired during the early renovations in 1928. Throughout the 26 years that Du Bois owned the property, he was never once able to inhabit the house.
Established first as a memorial park in 1969, six years after Du Bois died, the homestead was finally dedicated as a National Historic Landmark in 1979. Nearly a decade later the site was turned over to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and UMass Amherst was charged with overseeing the property. The Friends of the Du Bois Homesite was formed in Great Barrington in 2006 to work with UMass in developing the site.
Since 1983 under the direction of Professor Robert Paynter, the Anthropology Department at UMass Amherst conducted archaeological field research at the Burghardt family homestead. The artifacts uncovered, roughly 12,000, proved to be the remnants of the day-to-day lives of the Wooster family, maternal relatives of Du Bois, who owned the site from 1873-1928. These objects provide clues not only about the way the Wooster family lived, but also about the lives of working class individuals in western Massachusetts during this time period.
It is clear that Du Bois had a lifelong attachment to the site of the Burghardt home and to Great Barrington itself. Soon after acquiring the land upon which the homestead sat, he wrote a brief article “The House of the Black Burghardts,” in The Crisis. In it he reminisced about the house and the town.
“It is the first home that I remember. There my mother was born and all her nine brothers and sisters. There perhaps my grandfather was born, although I do not know. At any rate, on this wide and lovely plain, beneath the benediction of gray-blue mountain and low music of rivers, lived for a hundred years the black Burghardt clan.”
“It was a delectable place –simple, square, and low, with the great room of the fireplace, the flagged kitchen, half a step below, and the lower woodshed beyond. Steep, strong stairs led up to Sleep, while without was a brook, a well and a mighty elm.”
“I left the home as a child to live in town again and to go to school. But for furtive glimpse I did not see the house again for more than a quarter century. Then riding near on a chance journey I suddenly was homesick for that house. I came to the spot. Its windowless eyes stared blindly on the broad, black highway to New York. It seemed to have shrunken timidly into itself. “
“From that day to this I desperately wanted to own that house for no earthly reason that sounded a bit like sense. It was 130 miles from my work. It was decrepit almost beyond repair save that into its tough and sturdy timbers the black Burghardts had built so much of their own dumb pluck.”
“But I fought the temptation away. Yachts and country estates and limousines are not adapted to my income. Oh, I inquired of course. The replies were discouraging. And once every year or so I drove by and stared sadly; and even more sadly and brokenly the House of the Black Burghardts stared back.”
“Then of a sudden Somebody whose many names and places I do not know sent secret emissaries to me on a birthday which I had firmly resolved not to celebrate … And they said by telegram: The House of the Black Burghardts is come home again – it is yours!”
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