To the Editor:
In the summer of 1925, a small town in Tennessee made a name for itself. The town’s name was Dayton. Most people probably do not remember Dayton, but they remember what Dayton was famous for: the Scopes Monkey Trial. For those of you who may not know, the Scopes Monkey Trial was a court case where a teacher was accused of violating the Butler Act, a law that prohibited the teaching of evolution. Anyone who took grade school science knows what happened to the Butler Act, but not many people know the impetus of the trial.
To say the town of Dayton cared about evolution is wrong; the American Civil Liberties Union were the ones who cared about evolution and free speech. All they needed was a town to allow one of their teachers to be used as the defendant in a “test case.” Therefore, they offered to defend anyone who was accused of violating the Baker Act. A Dayton businessman named George Rappleyea heard about this proposition and realized it could bring the town of Dayton great publicity; he consulted with the superintendent of schools and a local lawyer, who agreed with him. The superintendent brought in a young teacher named John Scopes, and asked him to be the defendant. Scopes was not sure if he taught evolution or not, but agreed to be the defendant regardless. A media frenzy soon ensued.
The Scopes Trial is a prime example of how a small town can create sweeping societal changes. I am writing today because I believe the time is now for Martha’s Vineyard. When one thinks of Martha’s Vineyard, one usually thinks of beaches, seafood, celebrities, and affluence. When I think of Martha’s Vineyard, I think of the community and the people who shaped me into who I am today. Anyone who knows me personally knows that the last place I wanted to be while I was a kid was the Island. Do I want to live on Martha’s Vineyard my entire life? The answer to that is no, but living in a large city makes me understand why people choose to live in places like Martha’s Vineyard; it isn’t particularly stressful, it is clean, and surprisingly, it is easier to make friends in a small town than it is in a huge city.
I currently live in Washington, D.C. Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser renamed a section of 16th Street near the White House “Black Lives Matter Plaza.” Many residents and policy experts see it as a gesture, devoid of any real meaning or change. While I welcome the renaming, the skeptics are not entirely wrong. Washington, D.C., is a city that should lead by example, it is the nation’s capital, and it has historically been plagued with segregation and systemic racism that is still visible today. Can a place like Martha’s Vineyard make sweeping, impactful change? If so, then how? I do not believe that Martha’s Vineyard is expected to change the world. Since county government is extremely limited, Martha’s Vineyard cannot really do anything that is not in step with the commonwealth of Massachusetts. So there is nothing wrong with Island towns passing resolutions condemning racism, and perhaps even renaming streets.
I could not think of a better street to rename than Pease’s Point Way in Edgartown (keep in mind I know Edgartown way better than any other Island town). I have seen other cities rename streets; sometimes the renaming can cause headaches for the Postal Service and business owners. Renaming Pease’s Point Way would cause fewer headaches, since there are a limited number of businesses on it, and many of the houses are owned by seasonal residents, all while it is a main thoroughfare. I may not have ever lived on Pease’s Point Way, but I utilized it consistently throughout my life. After nearly 20 years of walking, biking, and driving down Pease’s Point Way, I can honestly say that nobody calls it by its name outside of downtown Edgartown. I am unsure if it is even signed outside of downtown, which would make the renaming easier. Did I mention that the police and fire departments are on Pease’s Point Way? Could you imagine a place in America where the police station is located on a street called “Black Lives Matter Boulevard”?
While the town of Dayton may have changed the world because they wanted publicity, I believe that Edgartown (and any Island town) could and would implement positive, meaningful change, despite any publicity that would arise. Andy Warhol predicted that “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” With today’s 24-hour news cycles and the ability to get breaking news on your phone, he hit the nail right on the head. But if you were to be famous for 15 minutes, wouldn’t you want to be famous for promoting inclusion, tolerance, acceptance, and love? Most people learn evolution in school without realizing the controversy that arose to have it taught; 50 years from now the same could very well be said for streets that were renamed things like “Diversity Plaza” or “Inclusion Place.” Many times, subtle change is often the most sweeping and long-lasting.
In the 1920s, Edgartown and Dayton were roughly the same size (Edgartown was slightly larger). If a small town could make change almost 100 years ago, it could very well be done today. If Chilmark or Aquinnah changed a street name to speak out against systemic racism, then a town that is smaller today than Dayton was 100 years ago would have a louder voice than most major cities in the country. People may forget about a street changing its name, but unless time and erosion speed up, nobody will forget about Martha’s Vineyard.
Jesse I. Herman