Short Biographies of Five African Americans in Berkshire County
Thirty-seven African Americans from Berkshire County fought in the War of Independence. One of the most famous, Agrippa Hull, joined the Continental Army in 1777 and served through the entire war, most notably with Thaddeus Kosciuszko, receiving a discharge in 1783 at West Point signed by General George Washington. Hull is one of only two black men who is recorded to have served in such close contact with generals in the War of Independence. He returned to his Stockbridge home and became a farmer of a small plot of land and also a butler in Theodore Sedgwick's house. With Sedgwick's help, Hull was able to free and marry the enslaved Jane Darby. Hull's portrait hangs in the Stockbridge Library History Room.
The Sheffield Declaration, an early petition of grievances against British rule, was drafted at Colonel John Ashley's House in Sheffield in 1773. Eight years later, the Massachusetts State Constitution, the world's first written constitution, asserted that all men are created "free and equal." On that basis, Elizabeth "Mum bet" Freeman, enslaved in Ashley's house, successfully sued for her freedom. Her case laid the basis for abolition of slavery in Massachusetts in 1783 and served as a national model for many subsequent cases. Today, interpreters at the Ashley House tell the stories of both Colonel Ashley and the rebellious Mum bet.
Organized during the Civil War, the 54th Massachusetts was the first official all-Black regiment in the U.S. armed forces. In July 1863, during its famous attack on Battery Wagner in South Carolina, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and fifty members of his regiment were killed. Berkshire County had the largest enlistment of any county in the state. Rev. Samuel Harrison, pastor for forty years at Pittsfield's Second Congregational Church, was working for the National Freedmen's Relief Society in August 1863 when Massachusetts Governor John Andrew appointed him chaplain of the 54th. Harrison was a powerful orator, writer and local political leader until his death in 1900. Today, the Reverend Samuel Harrison Foundation leads efforts to restore his home as an archival museum. The release in February 2005 of a PBS American Experience documentary portraying his life will bring national attention to his story and create widespread interest in curricula based on his life.
The Harlem Renaissance was echoed in Berkshire County. For nearly eight decades, Lenox native James Van Der Zee photographed the people of Harlem, including such 1920s luminaries as Du Bois, Aaron Douglass, Langston Hughes, Marcus Garvey, and Zora Neale Hurston. Van Der Zee was the second person in Lenox to own a camera, a gift from his mother's employer when he was in fifth grade. He took hundreds of pictures of family and friends that he learned to develop himself. Although he wanted a career in music, he found that photography was more financially rewarding, so he left Lenox for Harlem to set up a studio. He became nationally known through the famous 1969 exhibit at New York Metropolitan Museum, "Harlem on My Mind." A number of his early photographs taken in Berkshire County can be viewed in the Stockbridge Library Historical Collection.
W. E. B. Du Bois was born just five years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This valedictorian of Great Barrington High School became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, lived and worked on three continents, was a founder of the NAACP and edited its Crisis magazine for nearly a quarter century. Such groundbreaking books as The Souls of Black Folk, The Philadelphia Negro, and Black Reconstruction helped to transform the study of African American history and to establish sociology as an academic discipline. Du Bois is widely credited as the father of both the modern civil rights movement in the U.S. and the Pan-African movement internationally. Du Bois' political interests date back to his teen-age years in Great Barrington when he served as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Courier reporting on the political happenings of the town. His interest in history began when he devoured the texts of the early historians and philosophers at the local bookstore. Today, three historical plaques (one of them at a National Historic Landmark site), a memorial park and a mural mark his legacy in Berkshire County.