By Kim Ostellino
African American heritage is an essential part of our American fabric, and that heritage is finely woven throughout the landscape of the Berkshire hills. Since the county’s beginnings, African Americans have played an integral role in our local history.
The Berkshires back story would not be complete without mentions of residents like Agrippa Hull, a free patriot who returned from a career as a military aide in the Revolutionary War to become the largest black landowner in Stockbridge. During the American Civil War, the Berkshires sent more black men to enlist in the infamous 54th Regiment (the first all African American regiment in the war) than any other location in the commonwealth. The chaplain of this unit was a minister and political activist Samuel Harrison, who later moved to Pittsfield and put his efforts into the opposition of slavery. His home, the Samuel Harrison House, has been preserved and still stands in the downtown area, open to the public for tours.
One of the most notable parts of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail is the Colonel John Ashley House in Sheffield. The home, which is now a historical museum, is one of the oldest houses in the Berkshires and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was here, in the late 1700’s, that the venerable Mum Bett took a stand against slavery by suing and winning a court battle against her owner, Colonel John Ashley. Ashley was an ardent supporter of the American Revolution and Mum Bett (later Elizabeth Freeman), by fighting for her freedom, established a precedent that effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts. At the Ashley House, you can see life as it was in the early Berkshires, with decorative furnishings and housewares from the period. The museum is open year round, and while you’re there you may want to take a bit of time to explore Bartholomew’s Cobble, a National Natural Landmark that was once part of Colonel Ashley’s landholdings. Here you can explore gentle hiking trails that will lead you through some of the most diverse and unique plants in the country.
One of the most notable African-Americans to reside in the Berkshires was sociologist and Civil Rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, who died in 1963. Du Bois was the great grandson of Elizabeth Freeman and spent most of his life lobbying for social justice. Du Bois was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement in America and the Civil Rights Act came to be only a year after his passing. He spent his early years in Great Barrington, the town where he was born, and in 2018 the community will celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth. The site of his boyhood home has been turned into a National Historic Site, and you can take a self-guided tour through a short, woodland, walking path as you learn about his life and actions.
Wherever you travel in the Berkshires, you’ll find African American Heritage as one of the many threads that make up the amazing and memorable tapestry that is the Berkshires.
Kim is a freelance writer, devoted to bringing the best of the Berkshires to locals and visitors alike through her website, Berkshire Girl Online. She is an avid hiker and kayaker, who also loves to explore the cultural and historical sites of the Berkshires.