GREAT BARRINGTON — A museum focusing on the early civil rights history in Western Massachusetts has opened to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.
The Museum of Civil Rights Pioneers, sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Center in Great Barrington, opened last weekend and will feature items related to the African-American experience in Berkshire County and the rest of the state, according to founder Randy Weinstein.
The museum will display rare books and documents connected with civil rights figures such as Frederick Douglass, performer Paul Robeson, writer Langston Hughes, and Great Barrington-born civil rights pioneer Du Bois. Highlights include Robeson’s contract to play Othello on Broadway and a Bible owned by Hughes.
For years, Great Barrington and the Berkshires were a vacation spot for many civil rights leaders, as well as the birthplace of Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP.
Weinstein, 57, who runs the center, said he decided to launch the museum after collecting artifacts from well-known black historical figures for years.
“I’m passionate about these artifacts,’’ said Weinstein, who is white. “When you put a piece with a signature of Frederick Douglass in front of people, and they can almost touch it . . . it’s like they are running with Douglass as he’s running from Maryland.’’
The museum’s opening exhibit, “Fort Sumter: Harbinger of Black Freedom,’’ runs through July and contains many significant artifacts around the start of the Civil War. Included in the exhibit is an eyewitness account by the captain of the “Star of the West’’ regarding the Confederate attack on his vessel in Charleston Harbor. The exhibit also includes the captain’s commission, signed by Abraham Lincoln.
Weinstein said he wanted the opening exhibit to reflect the nation’s renewed interest in the Civil War and its effect on black America.