For those familiar with Oak Bluffs, the forest-green trimmed, white two-story house on 57 Pequot Ave. is as much a landmark as Union Chapel or the jetty and Inkwell Beach. The building is situated on Cottagers Corner, just a block from Circuit Avenue, was originally the town hall. Now it houses arts and yoga classes, and of course, parties. A long time ago, my son Charlie, aged 7, had just spent the afternoon with his friend Kiar Holland. We asked over dinner what they’d done, and Charlie said, “We bicycled over to Our Market and bought popsicles, then we played at the game room, and after that we went to a funeral.”
“Back up a moment,” I said, leaning in. “You went to a funeral?”
“Yeah, it was cool,” Charlie said. “They had cookies and lemonade. It was at the Cottagers.”
In 1956, Cottagers Incorporated was the brainchild of Thelma Garland Smith, who got Harlem Renaissance writer and revered Oak Bluffs resident Dorothy West on board. Eight ladies formed the charitable fund run by African American women, and they found that while they were busy raising money for the hospital, the police, the firemen, and high school scholarships, they were also having a great deal of fun. In 1968, they bought the iconic white cottage. They also formed a life membership in the NAACP. In 2006 Cottagers’ Corner was added to the African American Heritage Trail.
On any given summer in Oak Bluffs, you’ll see the Cottagers’ poster-sized marquee bristling with events. This year, marking the big 6-0, the philanthropic ladies added some special new events and buffed up some tried-and-true occasions. This past Thursday, August 4, Lola’s Restaurant hosted the annual luncheon and fashion show, with a groovy “Take Me Back To The ‘60s” theme.
The ballroom-sized dining hall was packed with women swathed in silks and jewels and style. There were 23 models, all lovely, but not runway thin and haughty. The audience of 180 was just as stylish. I perched on a wicker couch on the patio with Ms. Reesa Motley Reynolds of Naples, Fla., clad in a granny-apple green blouse and trousers matched with Ferragamo green heels. When I managed to find a vacant chair in the festively crowded room, an elegant 10-year-old named Lula Jackson (the daughter of a Cottager, Nia Rhodes Jackson) was wrapped in a filmy white shawl. Asha Rhodes-Meade, the youngest member of the Cottagers, at 33 years old, wore a lilac satin gown, with her 20-week-old son taking in the swirls of fashionistas floating past our table.
Trombonist Dick Griffin kept up a beat of pure ceaseless pleasure-for-all while the models, each one’s outfit described and attributed by mistress of ceremonies Louise Johnson, made the rounds of the room. Each runway figure had her own fun with a hip jutted to the right, a glance over her shoulder to the left, some swinging into dance moves, while the three male models — Walter Barton, Shawn Caldwell, and Lynn Gordon — kept their cool in the face of the fashion-zealous femmes.
As Cottager Bettye Baker said to me before I went in, “You’re gonna love it! You know what a bunch of black women are like when they get to clapping and singing and laughing!” She was right. If a great time wasn’t had by all, then the lone exception must have had a bad toothache.
Two of the best dressed “broads” were sisters Ruth Scarville Bonaparte, 93, and Millie Henderson, 91. Both wore outfits from their favorite shop, Bryn Walker in Edgartown. Ruth wore a pale jade skirt and jacket, with a strand of beloved family pearls around her neck. Millie was in a Bryn Walker skirt-and-shirt set, with a pale cream background and a lacy brown floral pattern. The Bonapartes, along with their late third sister Kathryn Allen, bought an Oak Bluffs house with their three husbands in 1956. They also happen to be the “oldest established permanent floating” Cottagers on the Island.
The Cottagers anniversary celebrations will continue this summer. Thursday, August 11, from 5 to 7 pm, the Tabernacle will usher in author and CEO of AARP, Jo Ann Jenkins, reading, speaking, and signing her national bestseller “Disrupt Aging.” Admission will be free, although you may want to shell out money for the book (fabulous title, right?).
Then on Friday, August 12, from 9 pm to 1 am, the ever-popular PA Club will ring in a raging dance party called “Black & Bling,” which broadly hints at the fun you’ll have (unless you’re an in-bed-by-eighter), and of a similarly glam dress code that will call to you as you shower away your day of clamming.