Black History Month brings Vineyard past to life
Robert Hayden's passion for the past makes black history on Martha's Vineyard come to life. A noted African-American historian, educator and author, Mr. Hayden has spent over 40 years studying and sharing his knowledge of black history throughout the country and on Martha's Vineyard. Now a full-time Oak Bluffs resident, he is eager to promote greater understanding of the role of black history on Martha's Vineyard.
Photo by M.C. Wallo
Mr. Hayden's undiminished zeal for the Vineyard's past led him to spearhead a Vineyard branch of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), now 80 members strong. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, known as the "Father of Black History," founded the national organization, composed of 55 branches across the U.S., in 1916. Ten years later, he initiated "Negro History Week," a celebration that coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. A scholar and educator, Dr. Woodson viewed black history as a missing segment in the American past. Although he died in 1950, the week that he celebrated was expanded into an annual month-long event in 1976.
Black History Week offers Mr. Hayden an opportunity to reflect on the role of African Americans in the development of Martha's Vineyard and the larger world. Celebrated in February each year, this year's Black History Month, he notes, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and comes on the heels of the country's inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama.
"My view of history is inspired by John Henrik Clarke," Mr. Hayden explains, citing the teachings of another historian, writer, professor, and pioneer in the creation of African-American studies. "Clarke said 'History tells a people where they have been and what they have been, where they are and what they are.'" Hayden added: "Most important, Clarke said, 'History tells a people where they still must go, what they still must be.'"
While Mr. Hayden credits Black History Month with increasing the country's awareness of accomplished men and women of color, he would like to see more recognition of the toil of everyday black people. "Black history is more than acknowledging the great man or woman," Mr. Hayden says. "It should honor the struggle, the spirit and the creativity of the masses."
The author, co-author and editor of 19 books on African American history and life, including "African Americans on Martha's Vineyard: A History of People, Places and Events," Mr. Hayden was drawn to the history of blacks on Martha's Vineyard after spending summer vacations here since 1960.
"About 12 years ago, I was sitting with Zita Cousens, owner of the Cousen Rose Gallery in Oak Bluffs, and she was talking about celebrating the gallery's upcoming 20th anniversary. She mentioned that people who came into the gallery often asked if there was a published account of black history on Martha's Vineyard. Because there was no comprehensive resource at that time, I decided to develop one. Zita was able to offer it in the gallery for her anniversary two years later."
Mr. Hayden spent countless hours interviewing individuals, reading archival newspaper articles and reviewing old photographs generously offered, he said, by many of the multi-generational families and photojournalists he met. He was able to trace black history on the Vineyard from the arrival of the first wave of enslaved Africans - which he calls the "Charter Group," in the early 1700s - to the present rise in Martha's Vineyard's black population due to an influx of retirees, many of whom were summer visitors or part-time residents.
According to Mr. Hayden, the African-American population increased in correlation with major national and local events: fugitive slaves and free blacks arrived in the Pre-Civil War period; free men and women arrived after the emancipation of slavery; another large influx occurred during the mid- to late- 1860s when a leisure class developed on Martha's Vineyard, and by the early 1900s, affluent black families had begun to buy homes and land on Martha's Vineyard, particularly in Oak Bluffs where the summer colony of Methodists had spawned a boom in employment opportunities for people of all ethnicities.
"Historically, there are five major African-American resorts," he notes, identifying Oak Bluffs, Sag Harbor on Long Island, Highland Beach near Annapolis, Md., Cape May, N.J., and Idlewild in rural northwestern Michigan. The development of an African-American population on Martha's Vineyard is unique, however, Mr. Hayden says, because it increased in tandem with the growth of the white community.
"Blacks on Martha's Vineyard have been involved in every aspect of life here for over 300 years, from the maritime industry to agriculture and tourism. Unlike other resorts where people of color were not part of the year-round fabric, blacks on Martha's Vineyard have made significant contributions to the culture as we know it."
These contributions, according to the historian, include the creation of the Bradley Memorial Baptist Church by the Jamaican-born founding Minister Oscar Denniston, who nurtured and sustained a community of color in the early to mid-1900s. Mr. Hayden also credits the Cottagers, a women's philanthropic group of 100 black property owners, whose busy fundraising schedule throughout the summer benefits Martha's Vineyard year-round. The NAACP, according to Mr. Hayden, has also played a key role in the development of the Vineyard's black population. Finally, he acknowledges the Cousen Rose Gallery on Circuit Avenue and Shearer Cottage in the Highlands section of Oak Bluffs as two vital and ongoing gathering places for African-American residents and visitors alike.
While Mr. Hayden has become a visible champion of Martha's Vineyard's black history and culture, he is currently absorbed in a venture far more personal: "I'm working on my own family history. My grandfather, Robert Carter, was the first certified African-American pharmacist in Massachusetts. I'm fortunate enough to be able to devote my time to this task and hope to pass on my knowledge to my four - soon to be five - grandchildren."
Karla Araujo is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.