Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs was the first inn on Martha’s Vineyard, and among the first in the nation, to be owned by and cater to black people. It now has been dedicated to the man for who founded the inn, and is a key stop on the Vineyard’s Heritage Trail.
Named for Charles Shearer, the cottage is the culmination of this man’s journey to prosperity.
Charles Shearer was born into slavery in Virginia. During the Civil War he assisted Union soldiers as a hunter, and in turn received his freedom. He attended Hampton Institute, a school established for Native and African Americans, and after graduating served on the faculty for 12 years.
He then moved north to work in two of Boston’s finest establishments, Young’s Hotel and the Parker House. He bought a home in Everett with his wife Henrietta, who had also worked at Hampton. While there they heard of the religious movement on Martha’s Vineyard, and decided to buy property near the Baptist Tabernacle.
Mrs. Shearer proceeded to run a laundry service out of this house, serving the wealthier members of the Island summer community. After her death, daughters Sadie and Lilly opened the building as an inn with the help of their father. Their aim was to serve as a welcoming retreat for black guests.
The cottage has been a favorite lodging place ever since, greeting such guests as Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Paul Robeson, Harry T. Burleigh, Ethel Waters and William H. Lewis. Often nearby homes were called upon to house an overflow of visitors. The inn is still a popular resting place today.
Many young members of the Shearer family got their start in business at the cottage, working summers with the guests.
“I have so many pleasant memories on the Vineyard. My favorite part about it was coming down here and working, and having an hour to run down to the beach,” recalls Horace G. Shearer, one of Mr. Shearer’s grandchildren. His jobs included doing dishes, making balls of butter and helping maintain the grounds. “It’s just so nice, everything is so familiar. I just don’t need to do any raking now.”
“We served 50 guests in one sitting at breakfast,” says Olive Boules Tomlinson, who was a member of the wait staff. “Breakfast was New England codfish cakes with southern rolls.”
These people, and many others, grew up to have significant jobs and own large amounts of property, marking the full transition of a family begun in slavery to one abounding in happiness and prosperity.
With such deep tradition behind the cottage, members of the Shearer family and the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard wished to make sure the meaning attached to it was preserved. This past Saturday, a plaque was dedicated to Charles Shearer and placed next to the cottage’s front walk, so that all who enter can understand how the place came to be.
“It is important for all humanity,” says Elaine Weintraub, who organized the Heritage Trail project with Carrie Camillo Tankard. “Not just black history, but history history.”