Historic African-American church faces $180,000 Tuesday deadline
The first African-American church on the Island, in imminent danger of demolition, received a last-minute reprieve last week when the Island Affordable Housing Fund (IAHF) struck a deal with the heirs of Oscar K. Denniston to purchase the 115-year-old building and turn it into a multi-use cultural center, with affordable housing units on the upper floors.
But there is a catch. The IAHF must come up with $180,000 before next Tuesday, June 12, when the purchase-and-sale agreement is scheduled to be signed. Patrick Manning, executive director of the IAHF, told The Times that the heirs have been very supportive of efforts to preserve the Oak Bluffs property, generously allowing IAHF access to the building and its memorabilia. They would like the church preserved and used as Mr. Denniston would have wanted, but because the property is a part of the settlement of an estate, they are under legal and financial pressures to complete the first step in a timely fashion. Other buyers are waiting in the wings, and the building remains in danger of being demolished to make way for commercial ventures.
According to a press release from the IAHF, the church, at the corner of Masonic and Dukes County avenues, opened its doors 100 years ago this summer as the Bradley Memorial Church, named in honor of Susan Bradley, with whom the Reverend Denniston had worked at the same location, then known as the Oakland Mission, to help recent immigrants to the Island. For 50 years the church, the first African-American church on Martha's Vineyard, was an integral part of the thriving African-American community.
This photo circa 1915 shows the Rev. O.K. Denniston with members of the congregation and their children in front of the Bradley Memorial Church in Oak Bluffs. Photo courtesy of Doris Clark.
The IAHF has ambitious plans for the property, including restoring it for use as a church, but also renovating it as a cultural and community center, with three affordable housing units in what was the pastor's residence upstairs. Long-range plans also include affordable loft space for community artists.
Mr. Manning told The Times yesterday that the project has multiple layers of appeal: to those interested in African-American history and the current Oak Bluffs community, to those interested in the arts, and to those who support affordable housing. He said that he has no worries about eventually raising the $2 million which will be needed to buy, restore, and renovate the property. Already there are donors showing interest in the various aspects of the project. However, circumstances have placed an awkward pressure on the need to raise the initial $180,000 in a very narrow time-frame. As of yesterday, Mr. Manning reported that the goal had not yet been reached, and he appealed to community stakeholders large and small to respond.