Oak Bluffs’ African-American history featured in Smithsonian exhibit

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History in Washington DC. —Douglas Remley

High above Constitution Avenue, just two blocks from the White House, I stand on an exact replica of an Oak Bluffs cottage porch. A white wooden chair begs me to sit, and I begin gently rocking. The thin veil of snow covering our nation’s capital hushes the protestors, traffic, and tourists so that I can almost hear the horn of the ferry chugging into the harbor on a clear July morning. Summer seems to flash on the horizon.

A permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, titled “The Power of Place,” explores the places and communities which have served, sustained, and empowered African-American culture over the course of history. Oak Bluffs anchors a vital part of that narrative as a multigenerational place of refuge and renewal –– a community that has served as a touchstone for friendship, solidarity, and political engagement since before World War I.

A four-minute video featuring the knowledgeable and reflective voices of Vineyarders Caroline Hunter, Stanley Nelson, Ed and Joanne Edey Rhodes, Lee Jackson Van Allen, John Suber, and Deb Toledo illuminates the collective yet profoundly personal purpose that Oak Bluffs has served over generations. Listening to their stories makes the curator’s contention clear: Place matters. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time. Oak Bluffs has provided a place of continuity for the African-American community, a place of memory and imagination, a place to call home.

Prior to the civil rights era, black Americans were customarily denied access to beaches, pools, and recreational locales, from the Jim Crow South all the way to Maine, but Oak Bluffs became at least one panacea for this systematic segregation. Ms. Van Allen recounts how Charles and Henrietta Shearer opened the first Island inn welcoming African Americans in 1912, when most hotels refused black patronage. Artifacts and photographs are on display from the Shearer Cottage, “known for its food and hospitality,” as well as playbills from the Shearer Summer Theater, which gave African-American actors, writers, and directors an opportunity to showcase their work.

The exhibit celebrates the myriad of black writers, political and social leaders, musicians, and thinkers who convened in Oak Bluffs throughout the 20th century. Among them was New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr.  Mr. Powell’s Bunny Cottage, purchased in 1937, with its famed wooden rabbit silhouettes, is recalled, along with other cottage collectables such as fishing poles, straw hats, and original letters.

As a field trip of D.C. schoolchildren clambers onto the wooden slats of the porch to watch the video, Joanne Edey Rhodes talks about the strong presence of African-American women teachers vacationing in Oak Bluffs in the summer. These women, proactive and educated, formed the Cottagers philanthropic organization in 1956, which is still very active today. Deb Toledo explains that the formation of the organization came naturally, as “black women were doing for the larger community what they did in their own families” — preserving and perpetuating African-American heritage and culture.

There is an undeniable mystique about the Vineyard for those who only know it as an Obama family getaway, or a yachting haven for the Kennedys and Clintons, but this exhibit shares an intimate portrait of the small community which has played a significant part in many people’s lives. Whether just for the summer or year-round, Oak Bluffs has been what Maya Angelou describes as home: “a safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

As someone who was lucky enough to live on-Island for a short two years, shuffling between Chilmark in the winter and Oak Bluffs in the summer, I would not dare to claim the title Vineyarder, but I do think of the Island as a home. Seeing the Oak Bluffs exhibit at the new museum made me reflect on how we affect and are infected by these places we have given to, taken from, and return to throughout our lives. As Ralph Ellison’s quote at the entrance of the exhibit so eloquently puts it, “It is not geography alone which determines the quality of life and culture. These depend upon the courage and personal culture of the individuals who make their home in any given locality.”

Oak Bluffs is a living monument to the proud African-American journey, a fruitful marriage between a place and its people. A visit to the museum will leave you with tear-stained cheeks and a full heart, and the Oak Bluffs exhibit is a definite must-see for anyone interested in how the Vineyard became such a unique place of power and promise.

Visiting Washington, D.C.? Plan ahead! Tickets to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture are free, but must be booked in advance via the website: nmaahc.si.edu.

Keya Guimarães is a writer and cultural-sustainability advocate. She currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son, and was fortunate to call the Vineyard home for a few stormy seasons. You can follow her creative cultural adventures at keyaguimaraes.com.