The Vineyard Connection: Because ultimately, everything is local

What does the first African American psychiatrist in the U.S. have to do with Martha's Vineyard?

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Adam Clayton Powell with Shearer family and guests at Shearer Cottage in 1931. Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, along with his wife, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, an accomplished sculptor, and their three children regularly stayed at Shearer Cottage.— Courtesy Lee Van Allen

Most everyone is familiar with the term “six degrees of separation,” the notion that any two people can be connected to each other (or Kevin Bacon) in no more than six steps. So we decided to put the theory to the test and find out how many steps it takes to connect the Vineyard to the first African American psychiatrist in the U.S., and one of the pioneers of Alzheimer’s research.

Here’s how it works:

First degree

Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller is acknowledged as being the first African American psychiatrist in the U.S. He was born on August 1, 1872, in Monrovia, Liberia, the grandson of a former slave who had purchased his freedom and moved to Liberia. Both his grandparents were medical missionaries, so Fuller took an early interest in medicine. He came to the U.S. to attend college while he was in his teens, and graduated from Livingstone College in North Carolina in 1893. Fuller received an M.D. from Boston University School of Medicine in 1897, where he then taught for 34 years. Fuller was a longtime resident of Framingham, and in addition to working at Boston University, he was also a pathologist at Westborough State Hospital.

In 1904, Fuller studied with Alois Alzheimer, who was at the forefront of studying the disease, at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital in Munich. Formerly known as “presenile dementia,” the disease now bears Alzheimer’s name. Fuller was one of only five research assistants chosen to work with Dr. Alzheimer, and the only American scientist.

In 1906, Fuller continued his work on Alzheimer’s at Boston University School of Medicine, in addition to studying the causes of schizophrenia, manic depression, and other psychiatric conditions.

Throughout his career, Fuller was sometimes the object of discrimination, often in the form of less recognition and lower salaries than white medical professors, yet the American Psychiatric Association to this day honors Dr. Fuller by annually giving a Solomon Carter Fuller Award, and in addition, the Solomon Carter Fuller Mental Health Center in Boston bears his name in recognition of his many contributions to psychiatric research.

“What a thoroughly remarkable man,” said Dr. Charles Silberstein, a psychiatrist at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. “He clearly had a passion for medicine and psychiatry that is a characteristic shared by the best clinicians, researchers, and teachers that I have known. It sounds like he was all three.”

Second degree

In 1912, Charles and Henrietta Shearer built a 12-room inn in Oak Bluffs, Shearer Cottage, in response to the Vineyard becoming a popular destination for African American vacationers. The guests included lawyers, doctors, educators, politicians, and celebrities, including William H. Lewis, the first U.S. Assistant Attorney General, Paul Robeson, the famous concert artist and stage and film actor, and the Adam Clayton Powell family.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from New York, honeymooned at Shearer Cottage with his first wife, Isabel. It was a popular spot for many other New Yorkers as well, including James S. Watson, one of the state’s first black judges; Bishop “Sweet Daddy” Grace; actress and singer Ethel Waters, and opera soloist Lillian Evanti. In the 1970s, Lionel Richie and the Commodores stayed at Shearer Cottage on several occasions. Their manager was a Shearer grandson.

It’s no wonder that in 1997, Shearer Cottage was the first landmark to be designated on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.

Third degree

Beginning around 1918, Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, along with his wife, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, an accomplished sculptor, and their three children, Solomon, Tom, and Perry, regularly stayed at Shearer Cottage.

Lee Van Allen, the current owner and innkeeper of Shearer Cottage and great-granddaughter of Charles and Henrietta Shearer, remembers hearing stories of how the Fuller family especially loved the impromptu music concerts, which included the famous American tenor and composer Roland Hayes, and Harry T. Burleigh, the baritone composer and arranger credited with transcribing and saving slave spirituals.

And that’s how you get from the first African American psychiatrist in the U.S. to Martha’s Vineyard.

If you have any interesting Vineyard connections you’d like us to explore, or you’d like to share with us, let us know at community@mvtimes.com