Four generations celebrate Shearer Cottage centennial in Oak Bluffs

Descendants of Charles and Henrietta Shearer joined well wishers for the centennial. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

More than 20 descendants of Charles and Henrietta Shearer were among a large group of people who gathered Saturday to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the historic Shearer Cottage — the first guesthouse on Martha’s Vineyard to cater to African American visitors and the first location to be designated a landmark on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.

Lee Jackson Van Allen, the current innkeeper and great granddaughter of Charles and Henrietta, the original owners, organized the party to honor the accomplishments of her famous grandfather, a former slave who, after a successful career in the hospitality industry in Boston, founded the 12-room (now six larger rooms) guesthouse to accommodate the growing numbers of affluent black families coming to the Vineyard in the early part of the 20th century. Ms. Van Allen credits her mother, Doris Jackson, with hatching the plan for the anniversary celebration last winter. Ms. Jackson died this past April and her daughter honored her wishes by going ahead with the planned celebration.

Among the 120 invited guests were family, friends, former employees, local historians, and two Oak Bluffs selectmen. Charles and Henrietta’s great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, great-great-great-grandchildren and one grandson, along with numerous other Shearer clan members, came from all over to attend the celebration.

A photo montage of Shearer ancestors was on display on the main building’s porch, along with a video by oral historian Linsey Lee of the famed Shearer Summer Theater founded by Elizabeth Pope White in the 1940s.

Guests enjoyed cocktails and hors d’oeuvres under a tent on the lawn of the landmark guesthouse while the Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Dana Hicks, director of music at the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, provided lively cocktail hour music. During a brief ceremony, Rev. Hicks led a prayer after explaining that Charles Shearer was a former member of his Boston based institution — the first integrated church in American. Ms Van Allen read excerpts from the eulogy for Charles’ sister Sadie Shearer Ashburn written by Ms. White, a New York theater professional and granddaughter of Charles and Henrietta.

Oak Bluffs board of selectman president Kathy Burton presented Ms. Van Allen with a framed certificate honoring “the Shearer family’s 100 years of extraordinary hospitality and community service.” Ms. Burton gave a short speech saying, “The Shearer family’s story is one of great courage and commitment — commitment to family, community and the American dream.”

The readings from Ms. Ashburn’s eulogy included biographical information about the Shearer Cottage founder, who located the guesthouse in the Oak Bluffs Highlands specifically to overlook the former Baptist Temple Grounds. The eulogy also included tidbits from the history of the Shearer Cottage, which throughout the years has housed a host of prominent politicians, musicians and entertainers. Influential former guests include actor Paul Robeson, singer Ethel Waters, congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and pop stars Lionel Richie and the Commodores.

Ms. Van Allen’s granddaughter, high school senior Camille Van Allen, who represents the sixth generation of Shearer descendants to work at the guesthouse, read from her college application essay, saying at the conclusion, “My grandfather’s courage shows through me,” and “”My integrity and hard work ethic come from my great-great-great grandfather.”

Ms. Van Allen concluded the presentation by thanking all of those who helped make the event possible. “Oak Bluffs has a special place in the heart of the Shearer family,” she said.