Every summer, African-American vacationers descend upon Martha’s Vineyard, specifically to Oak Bluffs, for a sunny beach getaway. On this part of the small island, there’s merriment in backyard barbecues or black-owned restaurants and storefronts serving up local flair and flavors, while HBCUs, the Divine Nine and other historically Black organizations host a smorgasbord of lively events.
One main attraction on every visitor’s list is the African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. The non-profit organization is devoted to marking “previously unrecognized contributions made by people of African heritage” on the island, identifiable by commemorative bronze plaques dotted throughout the region. Much of the town's Black history has been recognized in this prestigious manner.
Carrie Tankard and Elaine Weintraub first envisioned the organization in 1989. They had a common goal to build a physical trail celebrating the stories of African-American people in Martha’s Vineyard. In 1998 they placed the first commemorative plaque at 4 Morgan Ave., more commonly known as the Inn at Shearer Cottage.
The inn was one of the first establishments to provide lodging to middle-class Blacks visiting from Boston, New York City and Philadelphia in the early 20th century. It was a place to rest, relax and enjoy communal repast in the cottage dining room, which was prepared by Shearer family members. Guests included famous clientele, such as entrepreneur and first Black millionaire Madame CJ Walker; singers Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, and Lillian Evanti; and composer Harry T. Burleigh.
There are currently 31 sites on the Heritage Trail dedicated to the people and places that have helped shape and define the island’s history.
The William and Sarah Martin Homestead in Edgartown was home to William A. Martin, the first African-American whaling captain from the island. Historians argue he was one of the few in the United States in the late 1800s.
In the Highlands area of Oak Bluffs stands the Isabel & Adam Clayton Powell Cottage, better known as the Bunny Cottage. It belonged to Adam Clayton Powell, the New York congressman who was the first African American to serve in Congress from the Northeast. A reverend at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, he purchased the gingerbread-style cottage in 1937 with his then-wife Isabel Washington.
The Tivoli Inn, on 121 Lower Circuit Ave., was once owned by Georgia O’Brien and Louisa Izett, who were known as the Landladies of Oak Bluffs. For seven dollars a week (five if that was all you could afford!), boarders would have a place to lodge and could engage in card parties and dances, since Blacks were not allowed to socialize in white-owned establishments.
Writer Dorothy West had a home on Myrtle Avenue in the highlands. The Living Is Easy author, who was the last surviving member of the Harlem Rennaisance writers, worked for the Vineyard Gazette as a young woman and was considered the “voice of Black society” on the island. Her porch now intersects with a nearby avenue that is named after her.
During the 1960s, Villa Rosa: The Overton House, a grand Victorian mansion in Oak Bluffs, served as a summer command post for the Civil Rights movement. Once owned by Joe Overton, a union organizer from Harlem, N.Y., the house is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a frequent visitor.
The St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown is where founding members of Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP held their first meetings in 1964.
At 57 Pequot Ave. in Oak Bluffs, you’ll find The Cottagers, Inc. headquarters. A professional group of African-American women, they have spent more than 60 years promoting education, a sense of cultural pride and the value of service in the community.
One of the most recent additions to the trail is Dunmere by the Sea, a three-story, mansard-roofed Victorian “wedding cake” cottage. In the 1960s, it was featured in the Green Book, a travel guide that identified businesses that accepted African-American customers. Literally moved from its original foundation on Circuit Avenue, the Dunmere is now situated on Pennacook Avenue.
To discover more sites along the African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, visit mvafricanamericanheritagetrail.org.