Telling tales brings Black History to life

Olivia Loo and Leigh French
Olivia Loo watches carefully as Leigh French demonstrates how to make a book. Photos by Diana Waring

By Pat Waring - March 1, 2007

"Does anyone here know what a cobbler is?" asked Leigh French in her most enticing "Once upon a time" voice. The children clustered around her on the bright hopscotch-patterned rug at the Oak Bluffs Public Library edged even closer to hear more.

The youngsters were all eyes and ears as Ms. French began reading the book she had created to tell the story of George Frye, Sr. The first African American to own a business on Circuit Avenue, Mr. Frye and his three sons, Sam, George Jr., and Robert, operated The Cobbler Shop there for decades, beginning in the 1920s.

"The brothers and their father spent the day repairing shoes and shining them as well," Ms. French told the fascinated youngsters as warm afternoon sunshine poured through the tall windows of the spacious activities room. Nearby, several low, round tables were set up with a tantalizing array of art and writing materials - fat marker pens, colored pencils, crayons, construction paper, scissors, and paste. Children's librarian Irene Tewksbury stood nearby, listening to the tale. Several parents joined in too, and at least one younger sibling in a baby carrier, making it feel like a real family event.

The "Tell-A-Story" event held on Feb. 17 was part of the library's Black History Month program. Later that afternoon former Massachusetts State Representative Royal Bolling delivered an inspirational talk to older youngsters. The program was supported by a grant from the Oak Bluffs Cultural Council in collaboration with the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Leigh French
Leigh French captivates her audience at the Oak Bluffs library as she reads her original story of cobbler George Frye, the first African American to own a business on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs.

Ms. French, a former elementary school teacher, is also the new educational chairman for the Vineyard NAACP branch and an assistant in the library's children's department. Her teaching experience and her fascination with the subject allowed her to make the workshop not only informative but fun as well.

The writing session was meant to not only tell youngsters about how one African American family made a significant mark on the Island years ago, but also to encourage them to write and illustrate their own stories. Although the crowd was a little young to write intricate tales, they made up for it with their enthusiasm for artwork.

According to Ms. French, Mr. Frye purchased the property and began the business in the 1920s. It continued to be operated by the family until the building, in extreme disrepair, had to be demolished in the late 1960s. The family still owns the Circuit Avenue property, next to Ben and Bill's Ice Cream Emporium, she said.

Elijah is all concentration as he works on his drawing.

Most children, and many adults, wear sneakers now, so trips to the cobbler shop are nowhere near as common as they were years ago, Ms. French told her audience. But in those days when a pair of shoes would begin to wear out, Mr. Frye's was the place to go. "You'd like those shoes so much you'd take them to the cobbler and he'd repair them and they'd look like new," Ms. French explained.

Holding up her handmade book, Ms. French read the story of days in a long ago Oak Bluffs, when George Frye and his sons ran the thriving little shop. They would repair as many as 150 pair of shoes a day, she related, and as many as 200 to 300 pair a day in summer. During the busy times much of the family pitched in to help. "When business was slow or the seasons were changing Mr. Frye would shine the hoofs of horses and their saddles," she read to the delighted children.

Ms. French said that, just as they do today, celebrities and very important people would often visit the Island. And sometimes, even though they were famous, these visitors would need shoes repaired like everyone else. Even President Calvin Coolidge was once a customer in the Frye family shop, having his shoes shined and purchasing new laces.

Ms. French said later that her aim was to tell the children about an African American person who had made a contribution to Island history, which Mr. Frye, with his business success, certainly had. Along with researching articles about the cobbler shop Ms. French said she recalled it from visits to the Island as a child, and the Fryes were neighbors of her own relatives. And she thought the theme of shoes, the fact that "You can always tell a person's personality by the type of shoes they wear," would intrigue the children.

"I'm going to ask you to use your imaginations now," Ms. French said, once her story was done. "Make believe you went to Mr. Frye's to buy a magic pair of shoes and see what happens."

The youngsters rushed to find seats and settled down to work. Soon the table was buzzing with activity as the drawing, cutting, pasting, and writing began, sometimes with help from a grown-up. Before long the pages blossomed with colors, shapes, and words and now are on display in the library for all to admire.