Crusader for justice

Vera Shorter advocates for the greater good.


Vera Shorter of Vineyard Haven is 95. She’s sharp as a tack, and doesn’t miss a beat. She’ll crack you up and set you straight — often simultaneously. She’s keen on fairness. As a kid she created a rule that whoever was picked last for a neighborhood game was declared the winner. A New York native, she disdained the Yankees because they were slow to sign black players. Time spent with Vera is good for the soul.

Vera Groves was born in 1923 in Huntington on Long Island. She grew up surrounded by open spaces, cousins and friends, and a family that valued learning and self-reliance.

“My education started at home,” says Vera. “Our house was filled with music, games, and books. Both my parents were readers. When I started spending afternoons in the library, my friends would ask, ‘Why are you going in there?’“

Vera’s mother and brother were natural musicians. Both could pick up a tune quickly and teach the others. “We did a lot of singing,” she recalled. After a pause, she added, “It was a happy childhood.”

There were life lessons as well. “Back then, neighborhood kids were on their own a lot. You learned how to get along together and how to stick up for yourself.”

Some lessons were more disquieting. One incident sticks with Vera to this day. “We were being teased by some boys,” she recalled, “and one of them suddenly called out the word ‘nigger.’ Marie slugged him!”

That would be Vera’s older sister Marie, who was by her side often as mentor and protector. “She always looked out for me. My parents separated when I was 5, and Marie took a bigger role in my life.”

Marie’s impact on Vera went beyond mere supervision. Her sister’s passion for fairness and decency — for taking action against injustice — would have a profound effect on Vera.

“We were in Girl Scouts together,” Vera remembered. “The leader was teaching us a song, ‘Shortnin’ Bread.’ Well, one line went, ‘Two little niggers lyin’ in bed.’ Marie was angry. She told them, ’You can’t say that!’ They chose another song.”

Vera’s rich education in life and letters continued in the local schools, where her emerging instincts for advocacy and plain speaking were reinforced. “I had a wonderful American history teacher,” she said,” a man who gave us vital life lessons.”

One such lesson was particularly powerful. “He asked the class one day, What is an American name? We all answered; Smith, Jones, and so on. Finally, one boy called out a name ending in ‘-ski.’ We got the message.”

Vera took full advantage of her high school years. She worked for the yearbook and the school newspaper, she danced, and she played sports. “Thanks to Marie, I became field hockey captain. She was elected but said she’d be too impatient with everyone, and gave me the job.” Her favorite sport was softball, where she played the key position of shortstop: “I loved covering all that ground.”

Vera considers athletics to be crucial in her personal growth: “There were opportunities for leadership and responsibility. I developed a sense of humor and learned how to get along with people. I realized you could be ladylike and still speak your mind.”

The next 30 years of Vera’s life were devoted to family, career, and civil rights advocacy in New York. She attended business school and became the first African-American equal opportunity officer in the New York district of the IRS. In 1943 she married Rufus B. Shorter, a school administrator with whom she had two daughters.

Her burgeoning activism led her to the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP. “It was a natural move for me,” she said. “Negative stereotypes of blacks were everywhere … on TV you had ‘Amos and Andy’ and other shows. Discrimination against blacks was common.”

When Vera joined a drive to establish fair hiring and salary practices, she adopted a strategy of social change that she has adhered to ever since. She’s neither a marcher nor a speechgiver. “Person-to-person outreach is the most effective approach,” she said. “Reach out to individual merchants or officials, and state your case.”

In the meantime, Vera and Rufus were spending a fair amount of time on Martha’s Vineyard: “We came here often in the ’60s and ’70s. We stayed with friends, who usually had other guests in the house: black lawyers, writers, artists … and other high achievers. The conversations were about social issues and change. It was very energizing.” In 1976, when Rufus was named the first black superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard schools, he and Vera became year-round Islanders.

It would prove to be another “natural move.” Society was changing, and Vera was primed for social action: She was savvy and seasoned, and she had a lifetime of inspiring models to guide her.

For the next 40 years, Vera would be a pillar of social activism on the Island. “At the time, the NAACP was calling for nationwide action to ensure equal opportunity in labor contracts,” she said. “The local branch obtained guarantees from every Island town that we would be involved in all hiring efforts.”

When aspiring black educators were being denied teaching certificates, Vera helped her husband develop a program to change the system. Colleges signed on, and 16 young Island teachers received certification that first year.

When Rufus died suddenly in 1980, Vera replaced him on the Nathan Mayhew Seminars board, and was instrumental in revitalizing fundraising efforts, among them the Celebrity Tennis Tournament. (“What I learned about celebrities,” she observed, “is that you are one if you say you are.”)

True to form, Vera did her work behind the scenes. “I did the nuts and bolts … publicity, hiring, you name it. People paid to play and to watch, and to drink cocktails. We did very well.”

Reclining recently in a favorite chair, the Lagoon stretching out behind and below her, Vera reflected on life at 95. “Here’s my philosophy: When I wake up in the morning, I spend time thinking of all the good people and moments of my life.”

Topping that list are her daughters and grandson. Beth Shorter-Bagot, who lives outside Paris, enjoyed a successful career as a dancer and actor, and performed with Alvin Ailey. Lynn Shorter is a senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. Vera’s grandson Gabriel Bagot is pursuing an M.B.A. in Madrid.

Beth and Lynn spend considerable time with their mother, making sure she has company virtually year-round. “My daughters visit so much you’d think Europe was right around the corner,” said Vera with a smile.

Although she no longer sneaks off to the library, Vera reads as much as ever, and relishes her monthly book club.

As for the greater good, Vera remains active in both the NAACP and the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. “You have to have passion,” she said. “The struggle for equality can wear you down.”

Former shortstop Vera Shorter is still covering a lot of ground.

Vera Shorter shares her thoughts

On activism: My advice is to join groups that help people. When you do that you’re helping yourself. Fight fair, but have an enforcer. That was me … the enforcer.

On racism: Racism runs deep. It’s something you’re taught. Trump is tapping into the racism against Obama. These people had no voice for eight years, and now they’re acting out. There’s a fear today: “Black-skinned people will control me. Foreigners are taking over our country.” The irony is that Trump’s wife is an immigrant.

On modern technology: Certain aspects are OK, but they always have to push it too far. Take the first dryers, for example. You used to spin wet clothes by hand, with a crank. Everything was fine. Then electric dryers came along … it was called progress … and you burned your clothes. It’s a metaphor.

On life: Know where you’re going before you start. Otherwise you won’t know if you’ve gotten there.