Exploring Black History Month on Martha’s Vineyard

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Just beyond Martha’s Vineyard’s harbors, centuries-old homesteads and fanciful gingerbread cottages, the Island’s unique past lies waiting to be discovered.

With February being Black History Month and the extended Presidents’ Day weekend from February 15-17, now is the perfect time to explore the Island’s extensive, multi-faceted relationship with African-American history.

The best source for planning your historical visit is the African American Heritage Trail’s website, where you can access a map indicating the location of the many important sites in each of the Island’s six towns, as well as:

- The Victorian home on Beach Road just outside of Oak Bluffs, which was at one time visited by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X
- The Adam Clayton Powell Cottage in Oak Bluffs
- The still-active fishing village of Menemsha, where many embarked on voyages to freedom or to fled avoid capture under the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, as recently dramatized in Hollywood’s Twelve Years a Slave

Menemsha

Photo: Menemsha, pictured during the spring, is a now a popular destination for beachgoers and boaters, but its welcoming coastline still offers secluded coves, streams and inlets as it did in the days of the Underground Railroad.

The Island’s Black Heritage has for generations also extended to its people, residents and visitors alike. Since the days of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, Martha’s Vineyard has evolved into a popular destination for African American artists in many media. Author Dorothy West (The Wedding and other assorted works), whose simple cottage still stands in Oak Bluffs, was an early visitor/resident who brought many of her fellow artists to the Island. Filmmaker Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, among many other works) is another one of many others who, through the decades, have continued to make Martha’s Vineyard, and Oak Bluffs in particular, a popular vacation destination for Black Americans.

The list of notable African-Americans who have a special relationship with Martha’s Vineyard isn’t just limited to artists, however. Edward W. Brooke III, the first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate after Reconstruction, spent many of his summers on the island as a part of the community. John Saunders, who is often credited with bringing Protestantism to Martha’s Vineyard, fled Virginia in the late 18th century to take up residence on the island. To see a full list of noteworthy African-Americans who have made Martha’s Vineyard their home or second home, click here.

Two popular Oak Bluffs inns, notable for having been originally owned by and open to people of color, are included among the important sites of the Heritage Trail: Shearer Cottage was opened in 1912 by the descendents of Charles Shearer.  Throughout many decades, the Inn has extended its hospitality to Ethel Waters, Adam Clayton Powell, Lillian Evanti, Lionel Richie and many others.

The Tivoli Inn, originally owned and operated by Georgia O’Brien and Louisa Izett as Aunt Georgia’s House, was also a popular destination. Nowadays, both inns welcome guests of all races, but of the two, only The Tivoli Inn is open to guests all year long.

Tivoli

Photo: The Tivoli Inn, shown during spring, began as an accommodation for people of color, now welcomes all comers, all year long.

Ferry service to Martha’s Vineyard via Woods Hole is available and reservations for vehicles are easy to obtain. During February, accommodations are at their most affordable and many Island restaurants are open and welcoming, providing visitors with the perfect opportunity to celebrate Black History Month in a unique and meaningful way while exploring the island, its history and experiencing Martha’s Vineyard in a way that few do.

Carol Ward is content editor at MVOL providing current information about the Island at www.mvol.com & www.mvolmobile.com. An Island resident for 30 years, Carol was formerly publications editor for MV Chamber of Commerce. She can be reached at carol@mvol.com.