Black in the Berkshires: Revealing the past enlarges the future

Frances Jones-Sneed has walked along the Housatonic River, finding and telling the stories of black men and women in the Berkshires who have reshaped this country since this country began. These people have influenced each other, and this place has influenced them, she says, for more than 240 years — and they influence the country today.

Frances Jones-Sneed is a professor emeritus of history, political science and public policy at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, and she has researched these stories throughout her career.

Now, as people across the country are honoring 50 years since the freedom movements of the 1960s, she is writing a book. She talked with me about her work, her research, her storytelling and her deep knowledge of the Berkshires, past and present and future, on a winter morning near the MCLA campus in North Adams.

BTW: You have focused on these stories for many years as a writer and a professor. What has drawn you to them and draws you to them now?

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed: There is something unique about African-Americans who were born here or who have lived here for their careers — that from this tiny spot of ground, this environment, so many would have a national impact.

‘There is something unique about African-Americans who were born here or who have lived here for their careers — that from this tiny spot of ground, this environment, so many would have a national impact.’ — Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed

And this is a part of the American story that has not been told. We talk about people enslaved in the South before the Civil War, and we talk about people in urban areas after the war, but we rarely talk about people living in freedom in rural areas, and certainly not in New England.
We talk about New England as the mother of the American story, but the African-American part of that story has not been told yet.

And here we have six people in six periods of history who had a national impact, and when we tell the national story, we don’t get to talk about them.

BTW: Who are they, and what national changes have they caused or influenced?

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed:

Agrippa Hull fought in the Revolutionary War; he became aide de camp to Tadeusz Kościuszko, a Polish officer and a friend of Thomas Jefferson, who famously argued with Jefferson forcefully over slavery — so forcefully that he wrote a will leaving his estate to buy the freedom of enslaved men and women, including those on Jefferson’s plantation. He made Jefferson the executor of his will, and Jefferson refused to act. Kościuszko admired Hull and wrote about him in letters to Jefferson, and he visited Hull after the war.

Hull returned to Stockbridge and became one of the largest landowners in town. He was very tall and very dark, statuesque, and known for his sense of humor and wit and knowledge. And he sold land to black families and built a community here.

He knew Elizabeth Freeman, and later in their lives they were neighbors.

Elizabeth Freeman came into Massachusetts enslaved, and in 1781, she ended slavery in Massachusetts. She heard the new Massachusetts state Constitution read aloud, and she sought out a Stockbridge lawyer, Thomas Sedgwick, and asked him to bring a law suit, arguing that slavery was illegal in the Commonwealth and she was a free woman. And they won.

So she changed the narrative of enslavement in Massachusetts on her own initiative. She lived and worked as a free woman and built up the resources to have her own home and bring her children and grandchildren there, and enjoy them.

A generation later, the Rev. Samuel Harrison became the first black minister of the first black congregation in the Berkshires — and he worked with Frederick Douglass to recruit soldiers for the Union army, believing that if black men fought in the Civil War, then people would look at them as full citizens.

He served as chaplain to the 54th and 55th regiments; the governor sent him to talk with these men after many of them died in a frontal assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. And Harrison fought for equal pay for the black soldiers in his care, writing the the governor, who took his case to the Secretary of State and President Lincoln.

As the Civil War ended, Frank Grant was born in Pittsfield. He played minor league baseball and was ranked among the best players in the country, and Buffalo fought against segregation in the league to keep him on their team.

As the color line forced Grant from an integrated league into the Negro League, James Van Der Zee was born in Lenox. He would become known internationally as a photographer in the Harlem Renaissance, and he helped to create a new image of black America between the Reconstruction and the Freedom movements of the 1960s — not cotton fields and Southern slavery but productive people in the city.

But he grew up here and learned the craft here, and the early photographs he took in Lenox of his family are gorgeous, some of the most natural images he took. The environment here nurtured his dreams and visions and philosophy.

BTW: In 1888, one of the Berkshires’ best-known native sons, W.E.B. DuBois, was graduating from Fisk University and enrolling at Harvard, where he would become the first African-American student to earn a Ph.d. He would make his voice heard internationally as a writer and an activist. How do his ideas resonate today?

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed: So much of what is happening now, W.E.B. DuBois wrote about more than 100 years ago. He wrote about the importance of the Reconstruction, the eight years of progress for black communities and leaders before the Union army pulled out of the South and Jim Crow laws and segregation shut down.

I believe, and Du Bois leads me to believe in the second essay in Souls of Black Folk and in Black Reconstruction, that those years laid the groundwork for family, community and education of African-American people today. Read his essays and we know why they call this moment a second Reconstruction.

BTW: Du Bois was a deep thinker and a great writer. What ideas will you focus on in your book?

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed: I am planning to center on the Housatonic River. He was one of the first writers and scholars to show an environmental awareness of the Berkshire landscape. From an early age, he had a sense of place. As a boy he would go for comfort to the stream outside his house. He lived so close, he could hear the river every night. He came back as an adult, and the stream was gone.

BTW: How did he feel aware of this place and its meaning to him and to the world?

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed: He wrote about the importance of water as a natural resource, a source of life. … He compares the Housatonic to other great rivers he has seen. The river here is hidden. Drive through Great Barrington and you would never know the town is bordered by a river, unless you have read up on it.

He gives a call to the people of the Berkshires to face their river and their responsibility to keep this place as pristine and free as it can be, free of outside pollution — and pollution of the mind.
For him the river flows into equality, freedom, all he gave his life for.
He says often in his writings that natural resources define how free a place is, in politics and economics. Practically and philosophically, he sees the mountains high and free, and progressive people live here.

He says the difference between him and Booker T. Washington (the influential thinker he often debated) is that he was born in a free place, and Washington was not. And so their philosophies would be different.

BTW: Along with the book, are you working on other projects?

Frances Jones-Sneed: I am working with three colleagues on a curriculum on W.E.B. Du Bois and Souls of Black Folk for K-12 students. We would love to see students talk about him when they study Civil War in eight grade, for instance. He is an intellectual giant we haven’t talked about yet (in our schools).

BTW: Along the African American Trail you worked to create, where can we come close to the people and the stories who inspire you?

Dr. Frances Jones-Sneed: The Du Bois homesite is almost a sacred place. He wanted to re-create his boyhood house on the land, and UMASS has thoughts about creating a research center here. But now it has a walking path, a place for contemplation and meditation, with signs talking about his life and work, and a stone at the end.

In July and August I walked through the pine trees and through the pine needles on the path. It’s a quiet place. And he had walked this path. He played in these places, communed in these places. Sitting here in the quiet, it felt like communing with ancestors, people who have gone before. Everyone should have this experience.

The Housatonic River glimmers in morning light in Great Barrington.
Photo by Kate Abbott

The Housatonic River glimmers in morning light in Great Barrington.

Dr. Jones-Sneed and I spoke together for a story in the Spring 2019 Berkshire Magazine, and I am thankful for her time and a conversation I remember vividly today.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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2 thoughts on “Black in the Berkshires: Revealing the past enlarges the future

  1. All the issues have been & are enlightening.

    The article BLACK IN THE BERKSHIRES: REVEALING THE PAST ENLARGES THE FUTURE” presents rich and important history. I look forward to more on these subjects!

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