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The Stories We Refuse to Tell



W.E.B. Du Bois in repose

Dr. Kendra Taira Field recently spoke on behalf of Clinton Church Restoration as part of the Town of Great Barrington 5th Annual W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Festival. On the occasion of Dr. Du Bois’ Birthday (February 23), we share her remarks.

It’s an absolute honor to share in this celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois’ 154th birthday and to speak on behalf of the Clinton Church Restoration project. Thank you to everyone who has come from near and far to be here for this momentous occasion, and especially to the descendants who are with us. 

I first came to know Du Bois as a young person. Driving through the Berkshires in the ’80s and ’90s, my dad would pull off here in Great Barrington, and point out its significance to me as the homeplace of W.E.B. Du Bois. David Levering Lewis’s biography of Du Bois was the last book my father gave me before he passed, and a few years later, unbelievably, I was given the incredible gift of the opportunity to edit those same two volumes down to one.

Clinton Church, Great Barrington, Mass.

Over the last couple of years, I received a second serendipitous gift with regard to Du Bois: the opportunity to work with the Clinton Church Restoration project to create a center that interprets the life and legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois and celebrates the Berkshires’ rich African American heritage. Located at the restored Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, for me this work is about deepening public understanding of the black families, black communities, and indeed black institutions that shaped Du Bois’ early life. I’d like to share with you a bit about why this particular work and perspective matters.

Following his mother’s death at fifty-four, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois boarded the train south to Fisk University, the first African American institution of higher education to emerge after emancipation and the emerging sacred heart of the black world. In a matter of days, William went from being the sole black student in his school to being awestruck, he wrote his former Congregational pastor in a letter his freshman year, “to know that I stand among those who do not despise me for my color.” At Fisk, for the first time, William came face to face with the immediate aftermath of slavery. Some of his new classmates were members of freedom’s first generation, enslaved as babies or toddlers amidst the Civil War.

Before closing his letter, having gleefully detailed his newfound black community, he added “yet I have not forgotten to love my New England hills…” And while Du Bois’s exposure to the Fisk Jubilee Singers stirred feelings of reverence, pride and belonging in sixteen-year-old William in Nashville, his first hearing of many of these songs was right here in Great Barrington. “Ever since I was a child these songs have stirred me strangely,” he recalled. “They came out of the South unknown to me, one by one, and yet at once I knew them as of me and of mine.” Indeed, Fisk was not his first introduction to the spirituals. During his high school years, while tending to his mother’s failing health, mother and son attended some services of the A.M.E. Zion Society. Unlike their involvement in the Congregational Church, these services took place in members’ homes. The group had grown significantly in the two decades since southern emancipation, and some of its members were freedpeople from the southern states. They, in turn, introduced a young William Du Bois to spirituals and expanded his understanding of African American song.


Du Bois’ relationships with white ministers like Rev. Scudder, teachers and principals like Frank Hosmer, and the white community more broadly left behind ample paper trails, from well-preserved letters to school records. It is just so easy to talk about their significance to William’s development, to the family’s survival during his mother’s illness, to his enrollment at Fisk. It is much harder – and yet all the more necessary – to rescue from relative oblivion the quieter evidence of Du Bois’ immersion in black family and kin networks, black communities, institutional life, and spiritual traditions reflected in the work, for instance, of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion church society of his youth. It was Rev. Esther Dozier, the first black woman pastor at Clinton, who in fact initiated the tradition of celebrating Du Bois’ birthday at Clinton Church two decades ago, at a time when yet few acknowledged his significance here. As writers, teachers, museum workers, activists, residents, and descendants, we must do better, and work harder, to illuminate these rich, yet hidden histories, the countless stories told behind closed doors. As Dr. E. Frances White has written, “The stories we refuse to tell… do matter.”

Dr. Kendra Taira Field

Dr. Kendra Taira Field is the author of Growing Up with the Country: Family, Race, and Nation after the Civil War (Yale, 2018) and served as Assistant Editor to David Levering Lewis’ W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography (Henry Holt, 2009). Her current book project, The Stories We Tell, is a history of African American genealogy and storytelling. She is Associate Professor of History and Africana Studies at Tufts University and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Field is the recipient of numerous awards, most recently the 2022 W.E.B. Du Bois Award from the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP.  Co-founder of the African American Trail Project, Field serves as a historian for the Clinton Church Restoration project. 
Photo credit: W.E.B. Du Bois as a young man, courtesy of New York Public Library
Bernice Elizabeth Green is editorial curator of Our Time At-Home: Echoes from the Past

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