The Trail gets longer

Jim Thomas conducts the uplifting musical offerings from the NAACP Spiritual Choir. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Jim Thomas conducts the uplifting musical offerings from the NAACP Spiritual Choir. Photos by Ralph Stewart

By Elaine Weintraub - July 27, 2006

The creation of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard was inspired by a sense of mission and affection for the communities of the Island. In 1987, when the first site on the Trail, the Shearer Cottage, was dedicated, the goal was to create a physical Trail that would tell the stories and celebrate the lives of people whose contributions to our culture were significant, but unrecorded

In the years that followed, sites were dedicated all over the Island to honor not only those whose worldly achievements were great, but those who had endured and prospered. The Heritage Trail Public History Project collected histories and shared with the people of the Island, and our summer visitors, the fascinating stories of the African American community; advocated successfully to save threatened historic buildings; restored cemeteries; and continued to build the Trail.

Thelma Hurd,  president of the Cottagers, with Elaine Weintraub and Carrie Tankard, co-founders of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Thelma Hurd, president of the Cottagers, with Elaine Weintraub (left) and Carrie Tankard, co-founders of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard.

Throughout those years, the students of the sophomore class at the Regional High School worked as researchers, poets, muralists, technologists, and guides; they are the future and they have learned an inclusive and complete history. What once seemed like a dream is now a solid reality, and the Trail is a part of the Island and, through the education program, this story will never again be lost. This has been a true public history project involving many Islanders, people who have given support in so many different ways. Stretching from Chappaquiddick to Aquinnah, the Trail is a permanent physical reminder of the fascinating history of this island.

On July 5th, the 18th site on the Heritage Trail was dedicated in a ceremony at Cottagers Corner in Oak Bluffs. The plaque honors the role played in Island life by the Cottagers organization. A group of never more than 100, the Cottagers are professional African American women who formed their organization in 1956. Formed two years after Brown v. the Board of Education made segregation illegal in public schools and seven years before Martin Luther King shared his dream with America, this organization has worked tirelessly to promote education, a sense of cultural pride, and the value of service to the community.

Georgia Franklin sang a solo. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Georgia Franklin sang a solo.

Through the late 1960s, when America's cities burned following the murder of Dr. King, the women of the Cottagers continued their mission, providing summer activities for young people. Their goal was, and is, to contribute to this Island community where many of their members have been seasonal residents for five generations. The Cottagers support the hospital, award a scholarship annually at the Regional High School, present an annual festival of African American culture, and have, for the past 50 years, empowered their members to play a significant part in our Island community.

Thelma Hurd, the current president of the organization, describes the Cottagers as being "all about giving, and restoring. We maintain and make plans for the future that will keep the heritage of the past." Noting that her aunt had been a cottager for sixty years, Ms. Hurd observed that, as the membership remains at 100, she had to wait several years before becoming a member. "I love the Vineyard, and when I get there every year for July and August, I can think of no greater pleasure than to sit on my deck and listen to the birds singing. This is a magical place, and we work hard to preserve this way of life that is so precious to us. We want to give back to a community that we value."

Presenting the plaque to Ms. Hurd, Carrie Tankard, co-founder of the Heritage Trail, observed: "most people come to the Vineyard to play, but, ladies, you get it right. You work, play, and give back to this community. We honor you for all the work that you do to raise funds for philanthropy and we are proud of the contributions you have made to the Island."

The Cottagers Corner building was packed for the presentation, and the ceremony began musically with a performance by the NAACP spiritual choir led by Jim Thomas, an academic who can coax beautiful music even from those who believe that they have no talent. He led the choir with evident joy and the singers responded with dramatic and moving renditions of spiritual songs. The coded meaning of these spiritual songs was explained by Mr. Thomas to a hushed audience, after which voices soared echoing that there is a "great camp meeting in the promised land."

Lorna Andrade, a founder of the group, noted that they had only sung together on three occasions, and spoke of her dream to form such a choir. "My mother passed last year, and I remember saying to her that I wished the NAACP had a choir, and she replied, 'well, make one.' When we sing, I feel her presence."

The Cottagers Corner is an important site on the Heritage Trail, honoring the hard work of the women of the Cottagers and the role that they have played in our community. The building has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, including the After School Program, and is well-known to most Islanders. Now, its significance as a cultural and educational resource has been recognized.

The women of the Cottagers are an important role model, epitomizing the strength of women and of quiet activism. As Thelma Hurd noted while accepting the award: "It is an honor to accept this plaque on behalf of a group of the smartest, most hard working women that I have ever known. I am so proud of all of them, and delighted that their work has been recognized as being very worthy of being a site on the Trail."

African-American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard, by appointment. A nonprofit group. Benefits trail development. $38 for half-day Island tour; $20 for one-hour tour of Oak Bluffs sites. 508-693-4361.

Elaine Cawley Weintraub, chairman of the history department at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, is the author of "Lighting the Trail - the African American Heritage of Martha's Vineyard."