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.

Earl Bean

Earl Bean was a beloved science teacher at Searles High School in Great Barrington in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Class of 1963 dedicated their yearbook to him.

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.

Margaret Hart

Pittsfield teacher Margaret Hart was the first African-American student at North Adams Normal School, now MCLA.

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.

Opening Doors

“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.

Our Accomplishments – 2012-2015

On March 14, 2012, a group of 13 concerned residents came together at Second Congregational Church for a brainstorming meeting to discuss whether Berkshire County needed an NAACP branch. The consensus was that it did, and a reactivation committee was formed.

The new committee met the following month; Will Singleton and Dennis Powell, both of whom would become the first and second presidents, volunteered to co-chair the reactivation committee; Duane Booth volunteered to serve as treasurer.

Reactivation of a branch requires at least 50 members, and by late September that goal was reached. Juan Cofield, president of the New England Conference of the NAACP was notified, and we were on our way!

Election of new officers was held in December, with Mr. Singleton as president, and the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP was given new life.

Along with other branches nationwide, we operate as “One Nation Working Together, For Justice and Equality Everywhere.” True to that commitment, in the almost three years of our existence we have effectively brought about significant change in our community. Most of what has been accomplished has focused on the city of Pittsfield, where the minority population is highest among the Berkshire communities and diversity and poverty-related issues are also high.

We challenged the unjust practices that created a lack of diversity in our schools of teachers and administrators who resemble the population that makes up our community. We were successful in getting a highly qualified teacher of color into Pittsfield Public Schools who was previously denied the position because she “lacked experience” even though she had proven herself more than capable of being able to do the job. Today she is considered an excellent teacher by students, parents, and her colleagues. Superintendent Jake McCandless is an invaluable ally in this effort, which is ongoing, thanks to his openness and determination to effect change in our schools.

We were instrumental in getting troubled children in a special program out of a facility on Second Street that was formerly a jail and into a proper educational atmosphere.

Our Legal Redress Committee has worked with and provided guidance to more than 14 individuals who were being unjustly treated by or because of the system.

We have provided financial assistance to college students of color to help ease the pressure of rising costs for textbooks and other expenses.

We have formed a partnership with Greylock Federal Credit Union to diversify the workforce at Greylock and provide an opportunity through education and training to our Black youth. Beginning in 2015, Greylock became a major sponsor of the annual Gather-In and will do so as well in 2016.

In March 2014 we presented to the Pittsfield City Council a “Report Card on Race,” identifying goals and objectives: approval of an updated Affirmative Action plan by the city council that reflects the current needs of the community; fair and transparent hiring practices monitored by the Affirmative Action commission; full training and implementation plan throughout all city and school agencies; job description reviews to insure cultural competence; participation by the community of color on hiring committees; re-activation of the human rights commission; work to address and change Pittsfield’s school-to-prison pipeline.

In January 2015, City Councilor Churchill Cotton and Mr. PowelI co-authored a petition to make the Affirmative Action Policy a city ordinance, giving the weight of law to it. Revision of the policy before submission to the City Council fell into the able hands of the Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, chaired by Mary McGinnis, and it was adopted by the City Council in September 2015. Helping Ms. McGinnis and her committee were Darrin Lee of the City Solicitor’s Office; Ethan Klepetar, legal adviser to the NAACP, and Judy Williamson and Lenny Kates, committee chairs of the NAACP.

In addition to these initiatives, the NAACP has been proactive in co-sponsoring a Forum on Race at which the main speaker was the federal attorney for Massachusetts, organizing a civil rights march protesting police killings of black men, providing scholarships for minority college students to assist with tuition and high textbook costs, supporting a children’s musical group, and financially supporting a county agency, Multicultural Bridge.