Restoration of Our African American Heritage
The role of the Upper Housatonic Valley in the formation of American government, culture and industry is well documented in the stories of Shays’ Rebellion, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and William Stanley, to name a few. But what has largely gone unrecognized is a rich history of African Americans who played pivotal roles in key national and international events and made significant contributions to our culture. Blacks in our region spent their lives defining the tenets of freedom and democracy, hoping to claim the “unalienable rights” our founding fathers deemed “self-evident.”
It is story that our local community — white and Black, and especially our children — deserves to hear. Blacks served in the Revolutionary War, among them Agrippa Hull of Stockbridge. Elizabeth ‘Mum Bet’ Freeman of Sheffield pioneered the fight against slavery and contributed to Massachusetts’ decision in 1781 to abolish the practice statewide. In the Civil War, more Blacks from the region enlisted in the famed Massachusetts 54th regiment than anywhere in the state, among them Chaplain Samuel Harrison of Pittsfield and early volunteer Milo J. Freeman/Freeland of Sheffield, MA and East Canaan, CT.
Modern times brought the famous Lenox-born photographer of the Harlem Renaissance, James VanDerZee; NAACP leaders such as Mary White Ovington; composer of the “Negro National Anthem,” James Weldon Johnson of Great Barrington, and Williamstown and Pittsfield native Frank Grant of the Negro Baseball League. W.E.B. Du Bois of Great Barrington, the most compelling voice for African-American equality and the father of the modern civil rights movement, awakened America’s understanding of the Reconstruction period and the meaning of freedom for everyone, both here and abroad.
The telling of this story, born of our local region, yet shaping national and international events, restores a rich African American heritage that has been largely neglected and ignored. Recent investigations into the lives of African Americans throughout New England reveal important discoveries about the existence of slavery and abuse beyond the southern states, as well as untold stories of a rich and fertile cultural heritage. With this comprehensive guide and related research, we likely know more about the ordinary lives of African Americans in Berkshire County than in any other county in Massachusetts.
Photo credits: Second Congregational: Michael Kirk; Ashley House: The Trustees of Reservations