Longtime friends and followers of the late Dorothy West gathered on Saturday afternoon in the shade on a hot August day to pay tribute to the writer, who was the last surviving member of the Harlem renaissance, and to share memories. A new stone was unveiled at her former home on Myrtle avenue in an area of Oak Bluffs known as the Highlands, where the cottages are brushed with dappled sunlight and cats wander the woods. There were speeches, readings and poetry and many recalled stories of the writer’s vibrant life and the porch where she sat to write and greet guests.
The Dorothy West home is now a stop on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub a history teacher at the regional high school who is chairman of the heritage trail project, opened the dedication ceremonies. More than 40 people gathered around the cloth-covered stone marker to hear stories.
“There is no life that does not contribute to history,” the plaque quoted the author.
As Mrs. Weintraub spoke, her colleague and heritage trail co-founder Carrie Tankard stood nearby. This was the 22nd site on the trail, which traces and celebrates black history on the Island.
“We are very honored that you are all here to share in this,” Mrs. Weintraub said. “Dorothy was very gracious and very kind and often invited me over. She told me stories about growing up. I also saw her in the high school where she used to come in and teach some of the kids in the senior English class about how to write.”
The heritage trail was begun in 1998, and Mrs. Weintraub spoke about its mission. The plaques and trail markers stand on side streets, at crossroads, in front of homes and on conservation land. Standing behind Mrs. Weintraub was Leonora Costanza, a longtime friend, caregiver and confident who inherited Ms. West’s house and had worked with the heritage trail organization helped to place the stone in the front yard as a tribute
As others spoke, Ms. Costanza stood quietly, at times touching a handkerchief to her eye.
Carleen Cordwell praised the writer as an Oak Bluffs resident and friend.
Lionel Bascon, a writer and longtime follower of Dorothy West, came up from Danbury, Conn. to attend the dedication. Mr. Bascon earlier in the year wrote and edited a collection of short stories by her titled The Last Leaf of Harlem: Selected and Newly Discovered Fiction by the Author of The Wedding, by Dorothy West.
Twenty years before he had edited a collection of stories called A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Voices of an American Community, where he had also used stories by Ms. West.
He recalled how he had discovered her writings while doing research at the Library of Congress for his first book. Mr. Bascom said he is pleased that Ms. West is now finally being recognized. “Dorothy is an icon on the Vineyard, yet she is also one of the 20th century’s most accomplished story writers and she has never been given full credit for that.”
Anne Peterson Jennings, a neighbor, also knew Ms. West and recalled a time when the writer went hunting for a cat. “I knew her as far back as when I was a young woman. She was just a wonderful neighbor, a beautiful person. I remember bringing my children to introduce to her. Everyone knew Dorothy West,” she said. “She would have tea and everyone would chat. She loved children,” she added.
After refreshments more than 50 people climbed into a bus for a tour of the nine other heritage trail sites in Oak Bluffs.
The ride finished at the Shearer Cottage, also in the neighborhood, where there was a reception.
There Charles Ogletree praised the stories of Dorothy West and also spoke about the continuing mission to share the stories with students at the regional high school. To that end, five regional high school students took up a collection. Students Sarah Hall, Troy Small, Mike Kendall, Anna Hayes, and Randall Jette collected $4,500 for the continuing mission of the heritage trail.