Ten Minutes With Frances Jones-Sneed — MCLA Professor and Historian
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, for more than 240 years—and they influence the country today. Jones-Sneed is a professor emeritus at MCLA, and as people across the country honor 50 years since the freedom movements of the 1960s, she is writing a book.
What draws you to these stories?
There is something unique about African-Americans who were born here or who have lived here—that from this tiny spot of ground, this environment, so many would have a national impact. 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.
What national changes have they influenced?
Agrippa Hull fought in the Revolutionary War; he served with Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish officer and friend of Thomas Jefferson, and Kosciuszko admired Hull and argued forcefully with Jefferson to end slavery. Hull returned to Stockbridge and became a landowner, and he sold land to black families and built a community here. He knew Elizabeth Freeman; they were neighbors.
How did Elizabeth Freeman influence America after the Revolution?
Elizabeth Freeman came into Massachusetts enslaved, and in 1781 she ended slavery in the state. She brought a suit arguing that slavery was illegal under the new state constitution—and won. She lived and worked as a free woman and built the resources to have her own home, and bring her children and grandchildren there, and enjoy them.
And during the Civil War?
The Rev. Samuel Harrison 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, and he fought for equal pay for the black soldiers in his care, writing the governor, who took his case to the Secretary of State and President Lincoln.
And after the war?
Frank Grant from Pittsfield played minor league baseball and was ranked among the best players in the country, and his team fought segregation to keep him. And James Van Der Zee, born in Lenox, became known internationally as a photographer in the Harlem Renaissance. He helped to create a new image of black America in the 20th century, as productive people in the city. But he learned the craft here, and the early photographs he took in Lenox of his family are gorgeous. The environment here nurtured his dreams and philosophy.
And W.E.B. Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, lifted his voice as a writer and an activist?
So much of what is happening now, Du Bois 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. I believe, and Du Bois leads me to believe, that those years laid the groundwork for family, community, and education for African-American people today. Read his essays and we know why they call this moment a second Reconstruction.
What ideas of his will you focus on? I will 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 came back as an adult, and the stream was gone.
What did this place mean to Du Bois?
He wrote about the importance of water as a natural resource. Drive through Great Barrington and you would never know the town is bordered by a river. He gives a call to the people of the Berkshires to face 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.
Where can we come close to the people who inspire you?
The Du Bois homesite is almost a sacred place. It has a walking trail, a place for contemplation and meditation, and in summer I walked through the pine trees and through the pine needles. 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.