Berkshire Festival Celebrates African-American History

Berkshire County may not be the first place one would expect a wide-ranging celebration of African-American heritage–its black population is only three percent, a little more than a third of that of the commonwealth as a whole. But a summer-long festival is throwing light on the region’s history. 

In Great Barrington, a musical duo brings a Civil War echo to one of the kickoff events of the Lift Ev’ry Voice festival. 

Magpie is set up under a tent behind the the W.E.B. Du Bois Center,  named for perhaps the most prominent African American leader with ties to the Berkshires.

From now until August, a range of venues will celebrate African American history and culture, from performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem at Jacob’s Pillow to a poetry workshop for teens in Pittsfield.

While the festival throws light on specific historical figures and events, it is broad-reaching by design, says festival co-chair Shirley Edgerton

“Just focusing on the African American community encourages other communities to come forth and experience the richness of their culture and to share it with others.”

Dubois Center founder Randy Weinstein says he aims to celebrate this year’s one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, while also drawing connections to forms of modern-day oppression.

“Sure, it’s cultural to a degree, sure it’s artsy to a degree, but at its core we’re talking about the history of ending slavery. And I think that’s pretty bold.”

The festival, the second since 2011, is named for the song “Lift Ev’ ry Voice and Sing,” often called the African American national anthem, written by Great Barrington resident James Weldon Johnson in 1899.

Don Quinn Kelly, another festival co-chair, says the Lift Ev’ry Voice festival at its core is about freedom in American for all.

“The people can come and just celebrate each other, and not have to deal with anything other than: we’re here as a community, enjoy each other.”