Linsey Lee emerged from what was once the Vineyard’s first African American church last week peeling a respirator from her face. By her count, she had spent more than 150 hours in the Bradley Memorial Church in Oak Bluffs, and the mask stood as a shield between her and decades of dust.
The red imprints under her eyes began to fade and her face collapsed into a tired but almost giddy smile as Ms. Lee ran through the story of the historical landmark.
The church was first built in 1895. Susan Bradley conducted missionary work there back when it was called the Oakland Mission Hall, helping Portuguese immigrants gain citizenship with what Ms. Lee described as heavy Christian overtones.
During Ms. Lee’s hours of sorting through the artifacts inside, she came across numerous previously forgotten documents, like Ms. Bradley’s diary.
“We didn’t know anything about her,” Ms. Lee said. “So many questions will be answered when we get a chance to go through these.”
Rev. Oscar E. Denniston came to the Island from Jamaica at age 26 and helped Ms. Bradley with her work. When she died in 1907, Reverend Denniston, now living in the residential part of the building, changed the name to Bradley Memorial Church. Reverend Denniston developed the church into an important outpost for the Island’s black community over the next 40 years.
Ms. Lee’s found photographs of the Denniston family and the church as well as many letters between the reverend and his family.
“Everyone in the family wrote letters. There was so much love in the family. They wrote letters back and forth.”
Sorting through it all, she couldn’t help getting caught up in the family’s life and drama.
She came across Mr. Denniston’s wallet, filled with pictures and notes from his children.
There was a note from Osmond, his son who died at age 13, pledging in 10-year-old handwriting to be a good Christian boy.
“It was obvious that he carried it with him his entire life.”
The reverend never took a salary for his work and the church was constantly looking for ways to make money. Ms. Lee came across piles of fliers and invitations for every fundraiser imaginable.
She came across a collection of multi-colored pieces of cloth.
“What’s this, what’s this?” she asked herself. “Then I found this.”
She showed an invitation to a Building Fund Sock Social.
“Good friend,” the early 20th century invitation states, “Please accept this little sock. True it is not your measure, but it is furnished you to gain an end, for we are after treasure.”
Other fliers state, “COME AND SAVE SOULS AT THE OAKLAND GROVE!”
One described the church as “A work among the colored people and Portuguese and for the good of all.”
She found a letter from 1916 when Mr. Denniston wrote to the Oak Bluffs selectmen protesting people showing movies on Sundays. He succeeded in getting them to stop.
“My family tends to hold on to everything,” said Dean Denniston over the phone Wednesday. He is the grandson of the late reverend. “It’s a Denniston tradition. Never throw out anything.”
Reverend Denniston died in 1942 before his grandson was born. The church moved and disbanded in the following decades. Initially, Mr. Denniston did not know the historical significance of the house he grew up in.
“Nobody made a big deal about it,” he said. “I never understood the historical significance until I was an adult.”
There were parts of the house he wasn’t allowed to go into as a kid. By his estimate, he has seen only 5 per cent of the artifacts in the house.
Those artifacts will be saved by the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in a climate controlled storage unit. Then an archivist will go through the lengthy process of putting them in order and making sense of it all.
“When that is finally archived,” said Ms. Lee, “this will be an amazing resource for the community about the church and about African Americans on the Island.”
The church itself was almost sold and torn down. The Island Affordable Housing Fund purchased it and in conjunction with the museum they are restoring the church area its historical set-up.
Items like Reverend Denniston’s throne and pews in the church will be restored and put in a display case. The community room will become part of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.
There are interesting items that the museum didn’t remove from the house, like books, postcards and old newspapers.
“What’s left are items that the museum didn’t want, that didn’t have historical value, but would still have value to someone,” said Patrick Manning, the director of the Island Affordable Housing Fund.
Those items, he said, will be sold on eBay. Some of the three-dimensional items though, will be sold in an estate sale Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. From noon to 7 p.m. the nearby Oak Bluffs arts district will have a fundraising sale in which 15 per cent of their proceeds will go to the Bradley Square Fund, to help with the restoration of the building.
The museum received $25,000 in Community Preservation Act funding to archive the information.
Ms. Lee said she had spent so much time in the church reading through the journals that she could feel the spirits and the energy that still lingered there a century later.
“It was truly the people’s church,” Ms. Lee said. “It was for the working class. It had white members, African Americans, Wampanoags. A lot of people went there. A lot of people were moved by Reverend Denniston.”