Past and Repast: Island's Black history comes to life

Bradlee Memorial Church
An undated photo of the congregation of the Bradlee Memorial Church on Masonic Avenue, Oak Bluffs, which the Rev. Oscar Deniston established in 1908 and ran until 1946. Photos courtesy of Martha's vineyard Museum

By Pat Waring - March 22, 2007

An exhibit focused on a wide spectrum of African American arts and culture on the Island takes place at the Martha's Vineyard Museum in Edgartown this Saturday, March 24, thanks to a new collaboration between the museum and the Martha's Vineyard NAACP. The show features a talk and slide show on work by nationally known artist Lois Mailou Jones, a lifelong Vineyard visitor until her death in 1998. Several of her paintings will be on display as well.

Sharing the spotlight is Linsey Lee's collection of photographs and reminiscences by a number of black Islanders and others who were involved in the struggle for civil rights. Young visitors, seven to 12, will have the chance to experiment with making fabric art based on Ms. Jones's textile designs. Artist Nick Thayer will lead the activity.

Lois Mailou Jones
Lois Mailou Jones, a nationally acclaimed artist with close ties to Martha's Vineyard, is the subject of a talk, slide show, and exhibit at the Martha's Vineyard Museum.

Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the museum, and Leigh French, education chair for the NAACP, both said they are delighted with this program and are looking forward to future collaborations, finding ways to educate the community about the rich history of African Americans here.

Ms. Lee said that this event evolved from the museum's wish to bring compelling educational events to the public, especially in the off-season "and not just save them for the summer." The event is part of the museum's ongoing Past and Repast series, designed to meet this goal.

Ms. Lee's inspiration for the event came after she visited an exhibit of Ms. Jones's work at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts gallery in Boston last year. She began to envision a museum presentation with a focus not only on Ms. Jones's dramatic career but also featuring other African Americans on the Island.

Dean K. Deniston Sr.
Dean K. Deniston Sr., whose father, Oscar, was the first African American minister on the Vineyard, is included in Linsey Lee's Vineyard Voices oral history exhibit.

"It seemed like a wonderful opportunity to work with the NAACP," Ms. Lee said. "The African American experience on the Vineyard is such an exciting one, such a vital part of life here. Working with the NAACP will help broaden our understanding of that experience."

Leigh French, who has taught elementary school and now assists at the Oak Bluffs Public Library, took on the role of education chair for the NAACP recently. She is enthusiastic about working with other Island organizations on programs that build awareness of people, the achievements of the black community, and the interrelation among all ethnic groups.

"Everybody has an intricate part to play in building society," Ms. French said. She said it is important for people to learn how others contribute, and that collaborations like this one help make that happen. "We all are yearning for the same thing. We're all alike in many ways. We all do participate in the greater scheme of things."

Lois Mailou Jones painted and exhibited worldwide and, as a professor at Howard University, she inspired thousands of students. The artist fought hard against racial and gender barriers, Ms. Lee said. During the early years of her career she was not allowed to show her work if it was known she was black, so she would exhibit when she could, keeping her race a secret. But, Ms. Lee said, while struggling against discrimination she maintained her gentleness and strength.

Nancy Whiting
Nancy Whiting of West Tisbury, one of five Vineyard women who traveled to Mississippi during the civil rights struggle, shared her recollections with Ms. Lee for Vineyard Voices.

"She was a wonderful lady," Ms. Lee said.

A textile artist as a younger woman, she went on to become a nationally acclaimed painter. Her works are in the collections of the National Museum, New York's Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the White House.

Ms. Jones's life, struggle, and success at finally gaining recognition for her art, as well as her love for the Vineyard, will be the subjects of Saturday's program. The speakers will be Chris Chapman, author of "Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Color" (2007), and Robert Jones, nephew of Ms. Jones and co-trustee with Mr. Chapman of the Lois Mailou Jones Pierre-Noel Trust.

The artist felt a strong bond with the Island, according to Ms. Lee. She visited family members who owned property here regularly as a child and young woman in the early 1900s, later maintaining a summer home here for years. She is buried in Oak Bluffs.

"Martha's Vineyard, the minute I arrive here I am thrown again into the feeling of appreciating working in watercolor and doing the ocean scenes of Menemsha and all of the other beautiful spots on the Island," Ms. Jones said when Ms. Lee interviewed her in 1993. "So that, the Island will always be dear to me."

Many are already familiar with the work of Linsey Lee, documented in her two Vineyard Voices books. In this new Vineyard Voices exhibit, visitors will be introduced to the late Joseph Stiles who tells about the racism existing here among the military during World War II; the late Dean Deniston, whose father was the first African American minister on the Island, and the late Virginia Durr, a noted civil rights activist. There is Doris Pope Jackson, who runs the Shearer Cottage in Oak Bluffs with her daughter; teacher Helen Manning of Aquinnah; Leona Coleman Flu, daughter of artist Ralf Coleman and matriarch at the family compound in Oak Bluffs for decades.

And they will read the recollections of Nancy Whiting of West Tisbury and Polly Murphy of Chilmark, two of the five Vineyard women who traveled to Mississippi to help with the civil rights struggle and landed in jail. The show titled "African American and Civil Rights Voices" includes newly transcribed interviews with some existing work. Ms. Lee said that she will be adding several more interviews in the near future and the exhibit will remain on display through the summer.

Ms. French said the Vineyard Voices theme, used by Ms. Lee to preserve and bring to the public the stories of a range of Islanders, can inform upcoming ventures by the two organizations.

"I hope we can collaborate more on sharing and exposing voices on this Island that have never been heard before, to allow them to tell their story," Ms. French said.

Past and Repast Series, Saturday, March 24, 3 pm, M.V. Museum, 59 School St., Edgartown. "Art and Life of Lois Mailou Jones." Speakers Chris Chapman, Robert Jones. Vineyard Voices oral history exhibit (also continues through the summer). Art activity for ages seven to12. Free. 508-627-4441, ext. 113.