To the Editor:
The following is a copy of a letter sent to Pam Melrose, chairman of the Oak Bluffs historical commission.
I am writing on behalf of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard to appeal for the preservation of the Denniston home, known as the Bradley Memorial, on Masonic Avenue in Oak Bluffs. Though the Trail has not placed a plaque on the building, we still consider it a vital part of the story of African American people on Martha’s Vineyard.
The story of the Denniston family is told in my book, Lighting the Trail: The African American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard, and our tours of the Trail stop at this building and tell the story of a family, a church, and a community. The Trail organization would be very willing to work with the community and any of the town boards to save this building and render it useful again. It is sad to see a house that once served a thriving community become abandoned and deserted, but, more significantly, the loss of this house to facilitate development would sever us from the history of this community. This building that was once used for citizenship lessons and English lessons for new immigrants from the Azores and Cape Verde, and later for church services that according to Dean Dennison lasted for six or seven hours, providing safety, encouragement, and the opportunity to worship, stands empty, but we can reconnect it to its roots.
The Denniston family home on Masonic Avenue in Oak Bluffs not only housed an African American church that has survived intact, it was also the home of one of the first African American year-round families on the Island. Dean Denniston’s recollections of growing up in Oak Bluffs provide an irreplaceable link for us with the past. This family played a pivotal role in the community of Oak Bluffs, and when the physical, tangible evidence of that presence is gone, something vital disappears.
When the family sold the home, they donated all of the artifacts that made that building their home and their church to the Vineyard Museum, and there, I presume, they are preserved. At that time, I recall walking through that house and standing in the church, and realizing that here was a priceless treasure that could not be packaged up. It was a physical testament to a family, a community, a way of life. It can’t be simply erased from the landscape. It is part of the living memory of a community, and if it is removed then the memory fades and the link with our past is gone.
Our history is our story, and we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. On behalf of the African American Heritage Trail, I urge that we save this vital part of our story.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub
African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard