On reflection, Ogkeshkuppe, as the original people named Oak Bluffs, is extraordinary in many respects, and not just because it’s a cool place to grow up, the summers, or that it’s the colorful, honky tonk capital of Martha’s Vineyard. Our town is evolving. We are attentive to our financial well-being, considerate of our future, and soon-to-be celebrated for the welcoming nature of our past as a popular resort for African Americans. I spent a good deal of time this past Black History Month telling some of the stories I’ve learned and read about in an attempt to discover how it came to pass.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub, when she began her research on African Americans, found that Zacheus Mayhew of Edgartown sold a 10-year-old “Negro boy” named Joseph to a man in Falmouth in 1747. The famous slave, Rebecca, was owned by a Chilmark man in the 1760s, unusual here even in those times. Hebron Vincent was a man with no formal education who became a leading abolitionist in a state where slavery had been outlawed since 1783. John Saunders, a former slave, brought Methodism to the Island at Pulpit Rock in Oak Bluffs in 1787. In 1849, Tisbury’s John P. Norton contrarily petitioned Massachusetts to be allowed to import slaves to work his farm. Our ferry, the River Queen, was used by Oak Bluffs’ first visiting president Ulysses S. Grant and then President Abraham Lincoln when both met with leaders of the Confederate States to discuss terms for ending the Civil War.
In a letter printed in the Vineyard Gazette on Feb. 22, 1861, a writer railed against Island abolitionists writing, “We have suffered, too much, the noisy and headstrong to have their own way, and the real state of public sentiment among us, though adverse to slavery, is not of that crotchety character, which a few crack brained enthusiasts, or one-sided men, have exhibited in trying to force themselves to the front rank of anti-slavery movements.”
Following Lincoln’s inauguration on March 15, 1861, an editorial by Gazette publisher Edgar Marchant urged walking away from the issue: “persuade our people to let slavery alone, wholly and forever, for our meddling, our intemperate speeches, and above all, our pharisaical righteousness, sharing so largely in the profits of slavery, and yet condemning it, has done no good to the slave, — none to the master, none to the church, none to the country, — but evil, evil only, and evil continually.” While many northerners preferred ambivalence to slavery if it would prevent war with the South, the Civil War began in April, 1861.
Throughout this history, however, despite the fact Oak Bluffs was a place slaves escaped to, I’ve yet to find any evidence that Ogkeshkuppe — Cottage City — Oak Bluffs ever had or condoned slavery. That may be a salient reason the Island’s most diverse town has become a comfortable resort for African American homeowners and vacationers, including a frequent visitor — our president.
On Tuesday, Miki Wolfe’s computer class at the Oak Bluffs library will be a primer of the widely used Microsoft Office software program from 2 to 6 p.m., and is followed by a crossword puzzle tournament at 6:30 p.m.
The fishing pier is almost complete, architects have been selected for renovating Niantic Park (the basketball and tennis courts), and there’s a public meeting on March 19 to review plans for a welcome new sidewalk along Dukes County avenue from Wing Road to the harbor though the Arts District.
Town administrator Bob Whritenour has indicated that the $7 million grant earmarked for the north wall construction may require work to begin this spring and continue during the summer season. It’s nice that town leaders and voters can determine our destiny, but it’s somehow demeaning that we have to subjugate ourselves to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s “allowing” a bowling alley. It doesn’t seem that a bowling alley would be a battle the commission would want to take up. Oak Bluffs became the only town in the commonwealth to have successfully seceded when enough became enough.
The dark sand dumped onto the Inkwell last week was dredged from the Lagoon as part of the new bridge construction. I understand that the elements will bleach it and eliminate the smell. That news, of course, could have been placed on the town website — that, as of this writing, indicates that the town offices will be closed a month ago, Wednesday, Jan. 22.
Keep your foot on a rock.