We were not welcome

On the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday, Islanders share their memories of racism.

Photos by Ellen Sudow

Excerpted from interviews that appeared in Vineyard Voices and More Vineyard Voices by Linsey Lee and the Oral History Center of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. More oral histories and links to interviews on YouTube are available atmvmuseum.org.

We were not welcome to show in galleries

My career was really formed on this Island when I was about 17. We used to swim at the Highland Beach, which is over there near where we lived. One day, I was on the beach with Harry T. Burleigh and Meta Warwick Fuller talking about my career, and Meta’s career in France. They both said, “Lois, you know you’re not going to make it in this country. It’s true you’re very talented, but because of the situation, you’re not going to have any success with your career. You’re going to have to go abroad.”

And so it was in 1937 that I went abroad on a fellowship.

When I got back to the states, I went to 57th Street and they said, “You are an excellent artist. Impressionism is excellent, but you are black, so we can’t show your work. We can’t exhibit your work.”

There was one gallery in Boston that gave me a first show. They wanted to promote me, but I couldn’t get into the major shows because of my color. So I shipped my work to the National Academy of Design, the Philadelphia Academy, and the major galleries of Chicago and all. Invariably they were hung, because they never knew that Lois Jones was black. I had to do that for a number of years until I made my niche, and then I let them know who I really was.

So they didn’t know for many years that I was black, and it was a shock to them. I mean they just didn’t think a black artist could do that type of work, and if you could, they weren’t going to give you a chance anyway.

So it hasn’t been easy.

I have had to keep a whole lot of my feelings within. So, I’d go to Martha’s Vineyard, where, frankly, people are, it seems to me, more friendly. Sometimes you would be walking along the street in Vineyard Haven and somebody would say, “Good morning, nice day isn’t it?” You don’t even know them. There is a certain warmth that I feel here, that I didn’t feel in those early days in Boston and New York.

The Vineyard was not perfect. In the early years, none of the hotels would receive black people. That is why the Shearer Cottage turned out to be so important. It was the one place where they could come and stay for the summer, as I recall. But, I think, most restaurants were open to us. We couldn’t buy land in West Chop, but neither could the Jewish people. I mean, there was no way that either race could buy on West Chop.

 Lois Mailou Jones, Edgartown, was an artist active in the Harlem Renaissance who exhibited worldwide. She was born in 1905, and died in 1998. Linsey Lee interviewed her in 1993.

We were not welcome to wait on customers

Let me tell you this story. My father was an outstanding citizen of Oak Bluffs. Oak Bluffs had a school committee of three people. One of those persons in office died, a Mrs. Vincent. … This was sometime in the ’30s, I think. It became the task of the other two school committee members, Dr. Clement Amaral and a Mrs. DeBettencourt … to select a person to finish the term of the deceased member. They selected my father. When time came for re-election, my father took out papers. The two members of the school committee stood behind him 100 percent.

My father was defeated. He was defeated because he was a black man. Some of the people said, direct quote, “If we elect Mr. Denniston to the school committee, there’s a possibility we will have black teachers in the schools.”

So there was — you did find prejudice on Martha’s Vineyard. … It might not have been in the front page or in the front line, but it was there. It was definitely there. The Vineyard was second-hand prejudiced. Unwritten. They didn’t not allow you, they just were “full.” They didn’t have any room. “All reservations taken.” That’s backdoor prejudice.

There were certain jobs black people just did not get. They didn’t say, “We won’t hire him because of his color,” but it just didn’t happen. … You didn’t see black people working in the stores, the grocery stores. You did not have black people, black guys, dealing with the public. You could work in the back room – that’s in Oak Bluffs. I got a little job, and my brothers and I, we got jobs at A&P and McNeils, but we were behind the scenes. You did not wait on customers.

At one time there were four of us going to Boston University … my two sisters and my brother. We were able to get good rooms in the South End … We had to stay at people’s houses because, in days gone by, people of color were not allowed to stay in the dorms. If you can believe that. Seems like a thousand years ago. People of color, I don’t know, we were contaminated.

I think I can adjust to any situation except cruelty. But you can’t go through your life moaning and groaning. You make the best. You grab the bull by the horn, and you throw him …

Dean K. Denniston Sr., 1913–2006, was a railroad worker and school principal who lived in Oak Bluffs. Linsey Lee interviewed him in 1996.

We were not welcome everywhere

When we first came down here there were places — boarding houses — where colored people could stay. Black families were not welcome everywhere. At some restaurants and certain beaches. We went to Highland Beach, but it became a “private” beach. We were not welcome. But so much has changed. Would you like to hear that story?

The Bostonians, the black Bostonians, and perhaps the Bostonian whites, too, boast a little to the New Yorkers that they were the original settlers of Martha’s Vineyard.

And I must say, I remember when it started. This man’s name may not mean anything to you, Harry T. Burleigh. He was a composer of many of the spirituals you hear. He was the one who went South — an educated man — and heard these spirituals and preserved them. Put them to music. He was from New York, and he came here every summer because he knew many Bostonians, and he fell in love with the Island.

But the original summer families were Bostonians. And when the colony grew, it grew to about 12 families. When we went to the beach, we went to Highland Beach. Now, we sat on the beach, and we behaved well. Then the New Yorkers came.

Now, half the things I say are in gentle fun. Then the New Yorkers came because Harry T. Burleigh told them about the Island. … They never had such freedom, because you had the whole Island here, whereas at the various beaches they came from, they had only a section. And the women were — they were good-looking women in good-looking clothes. But they had paint on their faces. And they smoked cigarettes. But even worse than that, you see, they were boarding, and they wanted to stay at the beach all day. So they had food in baskets. Mostly chicken. Chicken, I think, travels well in baskets. But, you see, we have a reputation for eating chicken and watermelon.

So there they were, and we said, “They’re going to lose the beach for us! They’re going to lose the beach for us!” And I swear to God, one summer we came down, and it said, “Private.”

Dorothy West, a writer who lived much of her life in Oak Bluffs, was born in 1910 and died in 1998. She was interviewed in 1983.

We were not welcome to dance at the Tivoli

I was born in a small town in southeast Georgia; Waycross, Georgia, August 31, 1906. My maternal grandparents were slaves. … My father was a Methodist minister, and he believed in his children having an education, so they sent me to a boarding school that was run by the Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church … I was the valedictorian of the class. Then I came to Boston to live with my older sister, Mattie, in the South End, and finished high school. In high school, I wanted to take a college course, and one teacher said to me, she said, “Well, why don’t you train to be a maid?” I said, “For your information, I am not going to be a maid, I’m going to take this college course and I’m going to college, and you’ll see me teaching right here in Boston.” And that’s what I did.

I started coming down here when I was a teenager … I’ve seen things change on this Island. You can go most anywhere now, but when I first came down here, a black person couldn’t. There were certain places that we were not welcome. Now the Wesley House, for example, did not hire black girls or black waitresses. They had a cook who was black, but other folks who worked there had to work in the kitchen. On Circuit Avenue, blacks couldn’t go to all those restaurants, they could only go to some of them … This woman, Ms. Lewis, had a restaurant in her house on School Street. Anybody could go to the Lewis restaurant. Her daughters used to wait tables there. That’s where all the black people went when they had their days off.

At first they wouldn’t sell blacks a house in the Campgrounds. You could walk around the Campgrounds, but, you know, those folks that had cottages there, they didn’t want people hanging around. So we would go through there to go to Circuit Avenue very quickly. The only blacks that lived in the Campground were maids, chauffeurs, and cooks.

Blacks weren’t allowed to go to the Tivoli to dance. If you were black, you didn’t go there, because they wouldn’t let you dance. So there was prejudice right here on this Island. It wasn’t that long ago. We had our own places where we could have private parties and go to dance, but you just didn’t go where the whites went.

Mary Louise Holman, 1906–2004, was a social worker and teacher, and lived in Oak Bluffs. She was interviewed in 1997.

We were not welcome at Pay Beach

It was in the late ’30s that my parents bought the property on the Vineyard. The house was an old farmhouse, and it had land and it had rambling roses on a white picket fence. This area has always been a little neighborhood. Everybody knew everybody. They still do … it’s always been the same, all my life.

We would go swimming all the time. When I used to swim at the so-called Inkwell, it wasn’t called the Inkwell then. We named it the Inkwell much later as an inside joke. At that time they had the “pay beach” and the blacks couldn’t go there. They had all the little stalls where they could change their clothes. I think it cost a nickel a day, which is ridiculous when you think about it. And they put a fence that separated the “pay beach” from the Inkwell. We didn’t care because we dove under the fence just to bug them, and we’d go in and swim. We just did it to irritate them, because that beach was lousy. They had no sand and they had many wooden changing bins that cast a shadow, so the beach was not nice. We had the better beach.

It was utopia for us kids here, because no one bothered us as children. I didn’t even think about race, to tell the truth. As kids you’re too busy having fun, as long as nobody comes right out and calls you a name or something. If they’d done that, I would have smacked them. My mother taught me that.

Leona Coleman Flu, born in 1924, was an artist, politician, and antiques dealer. She lives in Oak Bluffs; Linsey Lee interviewed her in 2004.

Martin Luther King and me

From interviews by Keya Guimarães

Time to focus on the family

I was born in 1932, and grew up in segregated Jacksonville, Fla., so you can imagine my schooling experience right through high school. I attended all-black high schools, all-black movie theaters; you know, our world was divided. The discrimination was obvious and always there, you knew there were certain parts of town you’d never go to, you wouldn’t be caught walking in those areas. I went away to school to Detroit in 1960 and I met my husband there. He was very active in NAACP, and I became active with him. We were involved with uncovering how illegal housing segregation was occurring, through redlining applicants who tried to move into white neighborhoods. Black applicants with all the right financials were being turned away for the same houses that white applicants were being approved for.

In 1963 we had a sit-in at Detroit’s First Federal Savings and Loan; I was arrested and served a year of probation for civil disobedience. My husband and I were able to participate and travel to Washington, D.C., for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — a friend put us up for the night, and we stood with the thousands to hear him speak.

Since then, I feel we’ve achieved so much; we’ve listened to Dr. King’s message and done what he asked us to do: improve our neighborhoods, our families, and especially our civil participation. But discrimination is still out there, that’s my opinion, and we just can’t stop. We can’t stop being aware, conscientious, and supportive. It’s time to focus on the family, like Dr. King modeled in his life; this is the core to the health of our community.

––Trudy Ulmer, civil rights activist, Edgartown

Not for a select few

My first memories of Dr. King’s legacy came in grade school. During a morning meeting our teacher, Pat Gregory, talked about Dr. King and what he meant to the civil rights movement.  During this discussion he read the “I Have a Dream” speech. Even years after Dr. King’s death it still is a powerful and historic piece of history. I consider myself lucky in the fact that African-American people were part of my life since I was born. Two of my parents’ best friends were Wanza and Betty Davis, both African American and educators on the Vineyard. I knew them as family. My entire upbringing, although never directly quoted, was rooted in Dr. King’s message of being judged on the content of character and not the color of skin.

Dr. King’s message as it pertains my work is so important. I believe Dr. King thought America could be the greatest nation on earth as long as we stuck to the values on which our country was founded. That all men are created equal under the law, that our constitution applies to everyone and that justice isn’t for a selected few.

 Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake, president of the Martha’s Vineyard NAACP chapter.

In our thoughts

1968: The moments we learned of the assassinations of MLK and RFK are burned, I’m sure, in all our memories, as was JFK’s earlier in that tragic decade. King was a hero to Bill [Styron] and me and our young family members through his inspiring words and brave acts decrying violence, racism, the Vietnam War. We cheered his Nobel Prize.

April 4th was my birthday. Susanna, 13, thought she had ruined our party at home in Connecticut by getting a bad bloody nose. Then the phone rang.

In the years following as we fought and still fight for civil and human rights, MLK is ever in our thoughts.

– Rose Styron, human rights activist and poet, Vineyard Haven.