Black and Wampanoag people — including the formerly enslaved — were among the earliest seasonal residents of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association in Oak Bluffs, according to new research by association president Andrew Patch.

One of the first was Dr. Samuel T. Birmingham, a New Bedford physician of both African and Wampanoag heritage who appears in campground records as a tent leaseholder in 1862, Mr. Patch told an online audience of Martha’s Vineyard Museum members and guests Saturday afternoon.

Dr. Birmingham’s cottage, built later at 3 Forest Circle, still stands, Mr. Patch said, showing a slide of the property.

“This is very likely the first black-owned cottage in Oak Bluffs,” said.

By the 1880s, more than two dozen campground cottages belonged to people of color, according to Mr. Patch’s research.

“This was a substantial community,” he said.

“It’s remarkable that it existed [and] it’s remarkable that its existence has been forgotten for decades.”

For by the 1880s, the camp meeting association had already begun pushing out its tenants of color, leading to an all-white campground for much of the 20th century. Despite its own repeated doctrine that “we judge it improper and illegal to make distinction among our tenants on the ground of color,” in the late 1880s the association began condemning the cottages of black and Native American leaseholders.

While some were torn down — including an entire neighborhood now occupied by campground parking — other cottages were moved by their owners to the fringe of the campground, or beyond, Mr. Patch said.

Andrew Patch and Norah Messier of the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

Even before the removals, Mr. Patch said, his research showed that black leaseholders were intentionally clustered on the far north and west edges of the campground, where the ground is lower.

“The lower part of our grounds has been given up to the occupation of colored people,” wrote longtime campground agent Edmund G. Eldridge in 1904.

“It was understood you would be assigned to a lot … based on the color of your skin,” Mr. Patch said Saturday.

The camp meeting association then spent most of the 20th century leasing only to whites.

Though his ongoing research hasn’t yet turned up a smoking-gun written policy, Mr. Patch said there are people of color with family stories of having been excluded from the campground.

“That oral tradition is very compelling,” he said.

For most of his research, Mr. Patch — aided, he said, by two friends who also like to delve into history — has relied on clues from photographs, old newspapers and other documents, cross-referenced with public records. As president of the MVCMA, he also has access to the association’s records, which are not public documents, he said.

U.S. census records were invaluable in confirming the cottage residents’ races, while regional newspapers helped Mr. Patch identify a group of men in one 1880s photograph as a singing group from Howard University that performed on the mainland the same week the photo’s glass negative was dated.

Among the former cottagers, he found some compelling life stories.

A quartet of singers from Howard University. — Courtesy Andrew Patch

The singers from Howard were posed in front of a cottage owned by a formerly enslaved man from Providence, R.I., Mr. Patch said. Other 1880s residents included a barber born in Paramaribo, Suriname and Islander Julia Smalley, a Wampanoag whose son Amos Peters Smalley became a famous whale harpooner thought to be Herman Melville’s model for Tashtego in Moby-Dick.

“The history is astonishing,” said Mr. Patch, whose illustrated essay on his research will appear in the spring, 2022 issue of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum Quarterly.

“Most remarkable of all is the heroism of the people who owned these cottages, and what they overcame in their lives to be able to do that.”

Ms. Smalley was one of many female cottage owners of color, said Mr. Patch.
“So many of them are women, there has to be some reason,” he said. “It might be the women were seen as more palatable lessees, [but] I really don’t know the reason.”

A boulder on Dukes County avenue, which forms one edge of the campground where owners of color once lived, will be dedicated in June as the latest stop on the Martha’s Vineyard African American History Trail, Mr. Patch said.

“It will be the first trail site in the campground,” he said. “We’re very proud of that and very honored [to] make sure this story gets told and never again forgotten.”

Mr. Patch’s online talk was recorded and will be posted on the website, said museum education and public programs director Norah Messier, who hosted the event.