Records of black people on Martha’s Vineyard go back to 1703. Documents identified by Jacqueline Lois Jones Holland (10/25/25 to 8/15/07), one of the first people to write about African Americans on the Island (The Dukes County Intelligencer, August 1991), described black people as live-in servants who took care of homes and families and mariners who were deck hands, cooks, sail makers and whale men, one of whom became captain of a whaling ship in the 1800s. Almost all were year-rounders and by 1787 when John Saunders, a former slave, brought Methodism to what became Oak Bluffs, he couldn’t have conceived how important a vacation place the town would become to generations of black people.
By 1883 Phoebe Moseley Adams Ballou had become one of the first black summer visitors on the Island. She worked for the Hatch family in the Highlands. A governess to their children, a housekeeper and a cook, Ms. Ballou lived near Bradley Memorial Park with her daughter Caroline until she bought her own house near Call’s Market in 1905. Known as S.S. Pierce for the longest time, Call’s Market is Our Market today. Ms. Ballou’s house was next door to Dorothy West’s family until 1909 when a fire destroyed both. After the fire, the Ballous moved to Bellevue Heights where today at least the fifth generation of the family still resides on Pacific avenue.
Caroline and her husband’s children included the famed artist Lois Mailou Jones, Jacqueline Lois Jones Holland’s mother. A lifelong Vineyarder, Dr. Holland was an educator and historian who earned a doctorate from Fordham in 1973. She published several historical treatises about African Americans, including the one for the Historical Society. In addition to the Ballou family and Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West, who popularized this column, another early summer black person was Charles Shearer who brought his family in 1908 and established Shearer Cottage as an Oak Bluffs institution in 1915. The fame of several guests of Shearer Cottage — the Negro spiritual arranger Harry T. Burleigh, political dignitary Adam Clayton Powell Sr., actor Paul Robeson and vocalist and actress Ethel Waters — all lent to the notoriety of Oak Bluffs as a welcoming haven for people of means and accomplishment who, due to their race, weren’t welcome at other resorts. The Vineyard Gazette on August 8, 1986 featured an article about Shearer Cottage saying, “There’s no place like it ... Blacks like to be together, especially to have fun and relax.” The Intelligencer included in August 1984, “Its history has been well guarded; its reputation impeccable.”
Robert C. Hayden noted in his 1999 book, African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket, that while most beaches, restaurants and places of amusement were generally available to them in the period from 1920 to 1940, black people were not well received, particularly in Edgartown where many black servants and service people worked. On Thursday and Sunday days off, the domestics, chambermaids and butlers of color needed a place to dine, relax and socialize. In the 1930s James and Edna Smith, a butler and his wife, who was a domestic and cook, were willed a home on Cooke Street in Edgartown near the corner of Tilton Way. They used this home as the Open Door Club on a weekly basis for Island black people to congregate as a place where they could be comfortable and enjoy each other’s company. Along with special parties and teas throughout the summer, they held a gala event each August, which black summer Vineyarders — and even some white employers — attended. My coworker at the Vineyard Gazette, Steve Durkee, who is director of graphics and design and a Highlands neighbor, told me about the Open Door Club over the winter when it was torn down and replaced by an up-to-date private home. Today, many Oak Bluffs homes are owned by black people who, having been here for generations, are now summer people as times have changed and few live or work here year-round. Most of those who visit are persons of substance and accomplishment — along with one who is the leader of the free world. I think that may have been something John Saunders never prayed for but would have been enamored by.
The Annual Featherstone Center for the Arts Gala is at Farm Neck from 6 to 8 p.m. on Monday. It’s a fun fundraiser for the organization’s 17th year of service to the Island community
Tuesday at 3 p.m, stop by the Oak Bluffs Library and meet Oak Bluffs police officers who will talk about bike safety and child safety seats. Children of all ages can make their own badges and sit in a real police car. Hopefully in the front.
The 27th annual Martha’s Vineyard Hospital Golf Tournament at Farm Neck is Sunday, July 14. Contact Erin Tilton at email@example.com if you’d like to participate or become a sponsor.
Big Oak Bluffs music news: Smokey Robinson and Natalie Cole (among others) are performing at the Tabernacle and Featherstone on August 22 to 25 with events benefiting kidney disease research. More information and tickets are available at www.onthevineevents.com and C’est La Vie and Jim’s Package store.
Those new telephone poles are sure making the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road smaller. Hope you’re ready for an exciting and busy season — and the water is warm enough for a dip, enjoy.
Keep your foot on a rock.