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Hanging by a Thread:The Retreat of James Weldon Johnson

At the westernmost edge of my Circuit Riding territory, Berkshire County has a long, though not always well-recognized African-American heritage. In the 18th century, Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman of Sheffield successfully sued for her freedom in a landmark case that declared slavery unconstitutional in Massachusetts. In the 19th century, more Berkshire County soldiers enlisted in the 54th Regiment (commemorated by the 1989 film “Glory”) than from any other part of the state. Samuel Harrison, chaplain to the 54th, settled in Pittsfield. In the 20th century, civil rights activists like Mary Wright Orvington, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. DuBois had homes in the Berkshires. (For more information on the Berkshire’s African-American Heritage, see the website of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail.)

Some of the buildings associated with these figures are gone; the DuBois Homestead holds only a monument to the house that once stood there. Others, like the Harrison House in Pittsfield, are being preserved. And one—the Great Barrington summer writing retreat of James Weldon Johnson–is hanging by a thread.

Lawyer, educator, author, and activist James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) wrote fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. As an ethno-musicologist, Johnson traced the origins of African-American sacred music, collecting two volumes of songs for The Book of Negro Spirituals (1925). Johnson became head of the NAACP during the 1920s and led a national anti-lynching campaign. In 1926, he bought five acres of land with a 19th-century barn in Great Barrington, converted the barn into a home, and created a rustic writing cabin that he used as a summer writing retreat until his death in 1938. He wrote most of his God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse at his retreat at “Five Acres.”

Johnson described finding the site in his autobiography, Along This Way: “In 1926 I bought a little place in the township of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I rode one day by an overgrown place where a little red barn was all that stood out amongst the weeds; the house on the place had burned down. A bright little river ran under a bridge and circled round behind the barn. On inquiry, I learned that there were five acres in the tract, and I said, ‘This is just the place for me.’ Grace and I studied the possibilities and decided that we could remodel the barn, keeping the interior, with the old hand-hewn beams, just as it was. We did, and named the place Five Acres. There, we have made our home ever since for a part of the year.”

The converted barn and rustic cabin still stand on the banks of the Seekonk Brook. From the outside, the house looks like a modest Cape-style residence, though its timber frame and rustic interior reveal its 19th-century origins as a barn. A tiny orchard of elderly apple trees shades a grassy field next to the house, which is separated from the woods and the cabin by the brook. The cabin, tucked away among the pines, provides a sheltered, secluded place for quiet contemplation and creativity, though it’s only a short walk from the house and road. The cabin is so well-hidden, in fact, that the creators of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail had initially thought that it had been demolished.

Unfortunately, demolition could yet be the fate of both cabin and house. The Johnson House went on the market last summer. Because of the house’s modest size and its need for substantial repairs, concerned residents fear that it could become a teardown. The orchard, brook, and woods that make the site so lovely also make it a prime site for a Berkshires summer McMansion. At the moment, there are no historic protections on the property that would keep the house from being demolished.

Realtor Will Brinker has been working hard to find a buyer who will appreciate the significance of the site and preserve the Johnson house and writing cabin. I’ve been trying to help Mr. Brinker in his search, contacting non-profit groups in the area and brainstorming with colleagues about possible ways to save the property. While a number of individuals and organizations have expressed concern, at the moment, we haven’t been able to locate any with the means to take on the project. Will and I have been trying to publicize the property to a wider audience, resulting in the house being featured on the local NPR affiliate and in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s online magazine, Preservation.

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