The History of the NAACP in Berkshire County
The first Berkshire branch of the NAACP was established in 1918 and functioned until the mid-1920s. Reactivated in 1945, a local office was located at 467 North Street, Pittsfield. During that first year of reactivation, members organized a peaceful march to support the AF&M order of Masons in Pittsfield and the Beulah Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star.
The 1950s saw an era of prosperity for African-Americans and diversity in the Berkshire workplace. The Wendell Hotel, the Stanley Club, Union Station, the US Post Office, the White Tree Inn, the Log Cabin restaurant, the Yellow Aster, Darrow School, General Electric, country clubs, Adams Supermarkets, and Fairview Hospital were the main employers of African-Americans.
In Great Barrington, there were three African-American teachers at the small Searles High School from the late ‘50s to the mid-‘60s. George Taylor was the first African-American hired and taught social studies. Earl Bean taught biology, and Martha Pierce taught business classes. Both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Bean went on to become college professors in other parts of the country.
Pittsfield Public Schools, a much larger school system, lagged behind their South County peers. Margret Hart was the only African-American teacher; she taught social science for 26 years at North Junior High School, the first black person to hold a teaching position in the Pittsfield schools. Before retiring in 1976, she established a contest to introduce the city’s schoolchildren to the history of Black Americans.
The 1960s, ‘70s, and early ‘80s saw the rise of the Black middle class in Pittsfield, with more diversity in the school’s teaching ranks and city government. Blacks were entrepreneurs as well, starting businesses such as barber shops, bars and lounges, markets, shoe repair, dry cleaners, laundromats, hairdressers, dentistry, upholstery, and the Berkshire Messenger and Delivery Service.
Working for a Common Cause
Joining the Pittsfield public schools as teachers were Rhoda Caesar, Nancy Hall, Gloria Johnson, Julie Johnson, Catherine Rickard, Althea Patrick, Emma Kennedy, and Dorothy Amos. Founder of Early Childhood Development (ECDC), Ms. Amos said at the time, “This program is an opportunity for Blacks and whites, establishment and underdog, to work together for two common causes: the healthy development of our youth and the dignity of man with the strengthening of the family unit.”
William (Bill) Ross was also a teacher and the first African American in Pittsfield’s history to be elected to public office. Ernest West taught an elective at Pittsfield High School on Black History.
During this time, the local NAACP was active and enjoyed diversity in its leadership. During the early 1960s, the Berkshire branch took a stand on many of the injustices inflicted on African-Americans throughout the country, including a 1963 picket of the Pittsfield Woolworth’s held in sympathy with the lunch counter sit-ins at that chain in the South.
In 1965, Berkshire members joined the Freedom Summer project in Mississippi and Alabama to help African-Americans in those Klan-ruled states to register to vote and in other ways fulfill the promises of the federal Civil Rights Act as well as antipoverty and adult education programs.
1966 saw the election of the first white president of the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP, Bernard C. Robillard, pointing to the increasing sympathy for the cause among white people. In the 1970s and ‘80s, General Electric increased its African-American workforce in all areas of employment and aggressively developed an Affirmative Action Plan to recruit African-American executives in all departments.
The Pittsfield city government diversified further in the late 1960s and early 1970s through the efforts of Mayor Remo Del Gallo. He was supported by then NAACP President Willard H. Durant, who was able to calm tensions among the city’s Black population when riots were breaking out in other parts of the country.
“The city’s 1,700 Negroes see a Pittsfield Administration taking steps that could bring about the changes they need in their lives,” he said at the time. “Del Gallo is attempting to open some doors for Negroes that have never been open before,” such as appointing appointing Lincoln Jones as acting health commissioner and Issac Crawford Jr. to the code enforcement commission. Mayor Del Gallo also moved to attack substandard housing and to introduce a program for young poor at Pitt Park Playground.
In 1977 the development of the Pittsfield Project Area Committee Board consisted of seven blacks and six whites to serve in an advisory role to the Pittsfield Redevelopment Authority. Mayor Evan S. Dobelle appointed Wilbert Stockton to the Redevelopment Authority; Mayor Dobelle also appointed Stockton to the Herktots Commission, which drew up plans for modernizing city government.
In 1979 the NAACP boycotted the Berkshire Community Action Council (BCAC), citing a failure of the county anti-poverty agency to fight poverty or listen to the NAACP’s concerns. The NAACP was then housed in the Christian Center. William Johnson, director of the Christian Center, said, “It’s not a formal boycott . . . It’s just a matter of choice that is based on a conviction that BCAC and its central Berkshire ‘delegate’ agency Action for Opportunities (AFO) have abdicated their responsibility to act to provide opportunities.”
Also in 1979 the NAACP focused on making anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity laws work. The Minority Women’s Alliance was formed and placed 18 people in unsubsidized jobs in its first year.
A Ms. Sample lodged a complaint with Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) against her employer, Berkshire Training and Employment Program, the local CETA Agency, saying she had unfairly been denied a promotion. Accompanied by Frank Patrick of the NAACP Legal Redress Committee and Debora Powell, chair of the women’s alliance, Ms. Sample had a hearing at BETEP. Mrs. Powell was the late wife of now NAACP President Dennis Powell.
The MCAD case was closed after Sample accepted a negotiated settlement that gave her credit for a year’s experience toward the position of counselor for her community work with the NAACP and Minority Women’s Alliance. William Johnson said, “(The) Sample outcome is significant; many employers are hiding behind ‘qualification’ to avoid meeting Affirmative Action guidelines.”
The City of Pittsfield Affirmative Action Officer, Diane Jackman, Director of Administrative Services, worked closely with the Black community and especially with Sidney Harris, president of the NAACP.
A Less Prominent Issue
By early 1980, as civil rights became less prominent as an issue, the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP lost membership, and it had almost ceased to exist by early 1980. In 1982 core members reorganized and revitalized the local organization. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1990s the organization’s membership had again declined and the local branch became inactive.
At the same time, General Electric began to down-size, leading to many economic issues in Pittsfield and surrounding towns and especially for minorities.
In 1992 Philip Pettijohn, an attorney and West Side (Pittsfield) activist, challenged the Police Department to suspend its stereotypes of members of the Black community and accept the notion that they are equal citizens “with as much a right to be here as anyone.”
Mayor Edward M. Reilly formed the first Citizens Advisory Committee, established as a means of easing tension between the police and Pittsfield’s Black community.
From the 1990s until 2012, when the NAACP was again reactivated, there was no Affirmative Action policy in place, no equal opportunity, no diversity in city and town governments, local boards, and banks, and a decline in teacher diversity from numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. There was also a decline in job opportunities in general.
To see what the organization has accomplished in the four years of its new incarnation, please visit “Our Accomplishments.”