At the annual Class Night celebration this coming June, in excess of $1.3 million in scholarships is expected to be awarded to Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School seniors graduating the next afternoon. As remarkable as the sum itself is, consider that almost 15 percent — $190,000 — of those funds will result from the generosity of a single Edgartown High School graduate from the class of 1915, Elmer Hobson DeLoura, described in a recent article in The Martha’s Vineyard Times by Geoff Currier (Jan. 26, 2016, “The man behind one of the Vineyard’s oldest and largest scholarships”).
An Islander grateful for the preparation for a successful and fulfilling life his early years on Martha’s Vineyard and his schooling afforded him, Mr. DeLoura endowed a scholarship originally worth $1 million (now valued at about $4.6 million) in the late 1970s to benefit Island children. Mr. DeLoura was a first-generation Islander, the son of 19th century wash-ashores. He was born in 1898 on Martha’s Vineyard to Manuel Chaves DeLoura, an Azorean who arrived here 30 years earlier at age 16 aboard a whaling bark and remained to make his life here, and his wife Mary Ann Keane, an Irish servant girl. Elmer and his two sisters attended Edgartown schools, and Elmer went on to prosper, then returned to visit and decided to leave behind a legacy to encourage and support Island schoolchildren.
The story is a happy and quintessentially American one, like hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions chronicling the lives and ultimate contributions of wave after wave of immigrants in all parts of the country, each at the heart of true American exceptionalism: Make your way here, work hard, respect our values, and we’ll willingly share with you and your children freedom, dignity, and the tools and opportunities to live satisfying and productive lives in welcoming and supportive communities, regardless of your race or ethnicity.
In any other time but the political tar pit we’re now enmeshed in (courtesy of a failed, irrelevant Republican party regrettably still charged with fielding a presidential candidate), Class Night and Elmer DeLoura’s story would stand on their own. And while we note the generosity of the gift and the Island’s links to its immigrant past with civic pleasure and pride, the incongruity between our generally cohesive and embracing community and the larger political contest around us intrudes.
The striking irony is that on the evening of June 10, when Elmer DeLoura’s philanthropic largesse is being awarded to Island kids truly benefiting from the tremendous financial support handed out, the dumb, humiliating, and ultimately frightening posturing of third-rate Republican idealogues thrashing it out, pretending to national leadership, will be only weeks away from a final smackdown at the nominating convention in Cleveland. And part of the fetid far-right brew on display will be the Republican party’s platform plank on immigration. It will feature xenophobia, untruths, racist winks and nods to segregation and fascism, 10-foot-high walls, roundups and mass deportations, family atomization — and national shame.
A welcome to immigrants is not just a gift we give, and not even simply an acceptance of our humanitarian responsibility. It’s also a shrewd and calculating investment we make in ourselves and our own broad prosperity. America was never conceived to be a small, closed enclave; we have always been self-consciously and even aggressively expansionist, because our economic vitality and political and intellectual leadership have always depended on new ideas, new markets, new territories, vast infrastructures and investment, and on the enormous pools of labor needed to realize growth. And increasingly, as in post–World War II and post–cold war Europe, we’ve seen the critical contribution to world security refugee resettlement makes. So even when it was complicated in the 19th century by our inadequate social and political infrastructure, in the 20th century by postcolonial boundaries and borders, and in the 21st by the intricacy of a global economy and the security risks of malignant, entrenched terrorism, it’s our job and our political obligation to continue to meet our own needs and to provide the political and humanitarian leadership required of us at home and abroad by sponsoring and supporting open, fair, and sustainable immigration policies.
The community of Martha’s Vineyard is no American microcosm, and the moat effect of our Island prospect shouldn’t feed our unfortunate tendency to overcredit our difference, if not our uniqueness. Like it or not, we are completely of our world in all but the most superficial ways. We make a terrible error if we don’t see that the assault on essential values that has mindlessly featured in this year’s seemingly never-ending Republican nominating horror show demeans us all.
Vineyard children, making their way in the world helped in significant measure by the gift of the Elmer DeLoura scholarship, benefit from the success of one among countless immigrant families across the country who made the one-generation leap which used to be a uniquely American hallmark. When we feel something so directly and see it all around us, and especially when we accept the DeLoura funds in the community as we will again this June, we’re affirming the fundamental soundness of our system, and our commitment to protect it from demagogues and hucksters.