Anthro in Amherst

By Vincenza Parella

Matt Modica/Collegian
Matt Modica/Collegian

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the University of Massachusetts’ W.E.B. Du Bois Library is the tallest library in the United States. It is so named after the extremely influential scholar William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.

Du Bois was from Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and he “lived in a black community of a largely white New England at the time,” according to University of Massachusetts Anthropology Professor Bob Paynter.

“He learned a lot about himself as a man of color in New England,” said anthropologist Whitney Battle-Baptiste, who, with Paynter, has been studying W.E.B. Du Bois for several years. He was born into a world of change in 1868, three years after the Civil War and five years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. Later, Du Bois would be the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard. He also helped initiate the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] and assisted in starting the fight for equality for African Americans.

He sparked a great many Promethean fires in his day, so it was only natural that the students of UMass would want to name our heavens-challenging skyscraper of a library after him. In 1994, the student initiative to name the library after him began. Du Bois did think of himself as a “Son of Massachusetts,” said Battle-Baptiste, making him a fitting choice for receiving local honors.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. praised him in a speech made on Du Bois’ 100th-anniversary birthday tribute on Feb. 23, 1968, saying, “History cannot ignore W.E.B. Du Bois. Because history has to reflect truth, and Dr. Du Bois was a tireless explorer and gifted discoverer of social truths. His singular greatness lay in his quest for truth about his own people … He exemplified Black power in achievement and he organized Black power in action.”

In 1994, not everyone attending UMass wanted Du Bois to be the name on their glorious library. In an article from the Minuteman titled “Leftists Rally for Du Bois” from March 1994, the author stated, “There’s a radical movement sweeping across the UMass campus, attempting to impose a twisted ideology on an unsuspecting student body. A few misguided individuals here on campus are in the process of immortalizing an admitted communist and racial separatist.” It seems strange to think that a name so easily spoken among students and faculty now would have been so detested by some people of an older generation.

Nonetheless, most people believed it was a great idea. “W.E.B. Du Bois was a man of words, and the library is a place of words,” said Battle-Baptiste. An article named “Scott backs renaming of library” from the Collegian, March 1994, stated that the UMass student petition coalition had collected over 1,000 signatures from a large variety of people. The article’s author wrote, “We hope that the University, President Michael J. Hooker and the Board of Trustees will seize this rare opportunity and, at long last, take one towering step to move beyond the color line.” Some people don’t realize the discrimination that people struggle through every day, and it can be just as big an issue now as it was then. But, for UMass, the naming of the library broke down some of those barriers.

Today, we walk by the library whenever we go to classes, use it for homework or as a place to relax in a quiet space. The library’s walls are vast and long, and if they could speak, they would boast like an old war veteran of the embattled histories they hold within.

Vincenza Parella can be reached at [email protected].