Sally Dagnall’s book Circle of Faith anointed Rev. Hebron Vincent (1805 – 1890) the man who kept the records. Born in Edgartown, Mr. Vincent had no formal education other than less than a year of study at Maine Wesleyan Seminary. He was apprenticed to shoemaker Jeremiah Pease at age 13, converted to Methodism at age 17 and received lessons from “a good educated brother,” which led to his becoming the camp meeting secretary for 35 years. Hebron Vincent was one of the folks who went to Eastville’s forest to identify what would become our Camp Ground in 1835. His writing about establishing Wesleyan Grove is the sole chronicle of any American camp meeting. During his life, Mr. Vincent was a self-educated teacher, minister, attorney, historian and community leader — accomplishments worthy of note in any circumstance.

Typical of the irony that permeates the town of Oak Bluffs, however, Mr. Vincent was a leading abolitionist in a state where slavery had been outlawed since 1783, on an Island where slaves escaped to — like John Saunders, the former slave who in 1787 was the first to bring Methodism to the Island. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum has a beautifully penned (but difficult to read) 16-and-a-half page treatise in its archives titled, A Vindication of the African Race, which Mr. Vincent wrote. He and Jeremiah Pease both demonstrated sensitivity to black people, Mr. Vincent with his writing and Mr. Pease with preaching and personal ministrations.

This was unique in pre-Civil War days when most Islanders were ambivalent about slavery. Although it would be more than a century before African Americans were allowed to purchase homes in the Camp Ground, black preachers were allowed to speak and singing groups performed there, although black people almost never attended — or cared to attend — the meetings. People then had a “live and let live” view, but there were exceptions like John Presbury Norton of Lambert’s Cove who petitioned the Massachusetts General Court on Feb. 10, 1849 to be allowed to import slaves to work his farm. The shocked court had the insulting petition withdrawn.

There is only apocryphal evidence about when the earliest black people came to the Island or Oak Bluffs — I’ve seen references from the 1600s — but it’s no doubt due to the efforts of people like Hebron Vincent that ours was one of the earliest hospitable places for folks of color, who continue to come to visit.

Oak Bluffs, the best known, is not the sole (pun intended) vacation spot for American black people. In 1893, Highland Beach on Maryland’s eastern shore was founded by Frederick Douglass’ son Charles Douglass after he and his wife were turned away from a restaurant because of their race. Today, Highland Beach remains an upscale black enclave that notables and celebrities continue to visit.

In 1912 a group of white families formed a company that built Idlewild, a resort on a lake in rural Michigan, and promoted it to wealthy black professionals. One of the first to buy was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first surgeon to perform open heart surgery. It became a successful community almost immediately as there were few places for black people to own vacation homes. By 1927, over 16,000 lots were sold to 6,000 people from around the country. After the Civil Rights Act in 1964 black people had other options, the resort floundered but is today attempting to redevelop. 

Cape May, on the southern shore of New Jersey, is another such place where in the 1920’2 30 per cent of its population was African American and where there were more than 60 black-owned businesses until the period from 1945 to the 1970s, when the unintended consequence of urban renewal destroyed much of what today is its downtown historic district. Many homes, some with similar Victorian styles as ours, remain owned by black vacationers.

Sag Harbor at the end of Long Island’s north shore has been a black vacation area since 1947 when two sisters developed 120 lots. A former whaling center, Sag Harbor has a 172-year-old church that was once a part of the Underground Railroad. It is a vacation spot for many well-known black businesspeople and celebrities, many of whom also visit Oak Bluffs.

It is movie night again next Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Oak Bluffs library. This one is a PG-13 documentary about back-up singers. A light supper will be available at no charge. My Panda Bear is back from last week’s stuffed animal vet check-up with a prescription for plenty of liquids and rest, due to his advanced age.

Hebron Vincent and Jeremiah Pease were a couple of good men — worth remembering on the eve of Black History month.

Keep your foot on a rock.