Race relations on the Vineyard have always been more nuanced than in many communities elsewhere. On one hand, Black families could not buy property in Edgartown in the 1920s and ’30s. Meanwhile, starting back in the 19th century, Oak Bluffs became a thriving summer destination for Black professionals. Yet beneath the surface, some Vineyard businesses were still off-limits for Blacks, and job opportunities were limited.
But by the time the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the 1960s, racial equality had made considerable inroads on the Island, and race relations were for the most part cordial.
That being said, the Vineyard has long had a progressive and activist streak, and the civil rights movement did not go unnoticed on the Island. Nancy Whiting, who was a part of that movement, told Linsey Lee, the oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, in a 1993 interview that there was one person who galvanized the movement on the Island. “Henry Byrd, of course, is the name that comes to mind right away,” said Whiting.
In an exhibit at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum titled “Making Change: Stories of Vineyard Activism, 1820-2020,” Bird is described as having traveled to Williamston, N.C., for antisegregation demonstrations, and subsequently being thrown in jail. When he returned in November 1963, it lit a fire under the activist community on the Island.
Within a matter of weeks, the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP was officially formed. The precise date was Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was assassinated. And given the role that Kennedy played in desegregation, the M.V. NAACP felt moved to organize in his honor.
“We went ahead and did it that day,” said Nancy Whiting, one of the founding members, “thinking that was an appropriate thing to do.” The original membership was a diverse group of Islanders, comprised of people of many ethnicities.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub, M.V. NAACP member and founder of the African American Heritage Trail, said that the first president of the M.V. NAACP was Toby Dorsey, followed by Roscoe Heathman, and that they were both African American. Other African Americans involved in the formation of the chapter included Audria Tankard and Harold Johnson. Non–African Americans involved with founding the group included the dynamic Kivie Kaplan, and a group of five Vineyard women who would become known as the Vineyard Five.
What united and motivated the group were the teachings and actions of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “King’s relationship of politics and religion and nonviolence,” Whiting said, “that was what turned me on before anything happened.”
And it didn’t take long for the M.V. NAACP to get down to work. In the spring of 1964, Polly Murphy, Nancy Whiting, Peg Lilienthal, Virginia Mazer, and Nancy Smith of the Vineyard chapter decided on one of their first initiatives. The group, known as the Vineyard Five, decided to deliver food and clothing to people who were protesting unfair labor practices at Sears, Roebuck and Co. in Williamston, N.C., where Henry Bird was once thrown in jail.
The Vineyard Five decided to put their own stamp on their protest. These “women from the North,” as they were viewed, chose to wear white gloves and get dressed up to protest. “It was fun,” Whiting said, “because, as someone said, ‘You will drive them absolutely wild.’” But it didn’t take long for the group to realize that this was very serious business.
”It was scary,” Whiting said; “we were being watched as we came into town.” The group stayed with Black families, and met every night at a church that had bullet holes in it. One of the Black parishioners said that people would drive by and shoot into their houses at night.
The group was first assigned to go into the countryside and register Black voters. They would go house to house, and were stunned by the abject poverty and the raw hatred white residents showed toward them. “They sure as hell didn’t want us to be doing that,” Whiting said.
Their next assignment was to go to the Sears store and to demonstrate against their hiring practices. “There’s no way five white women and a bunch of Black people were going to be able to protest on May Day outside of Sears, Roebuck, with placards without getting arrested,” Whiting said, “which is what happened.”
The police arrived at the scene, and proceeded to take the group to jail, white gloves and all. As they arrived at the jail, they were confronted by a swelling crowd of white people. “And that was my moment of truth about hatred,” Whiting said, “looking into the eyes of hatred. It was just terribly shocking. I realized that they would kill us the first chance they got. They absolutely detested us.”
The group survived their jail time, and returned to the Vineyard with renewed fire in their bellies and a heightened sense of resolve and dedication. And over the years, the NAACP has remained an active presence on the Island, a force for justice and inclusion for all races over the years.
Past president of the M.V. NAACP Laurie Perry-Henry, in a message to members and friends, spelled out the mission of the chapter over the years: “The mission of the NAACP is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons, and to eliminate race-based discrimination. This is the standard and these are the values that guide every challenge we take on.
“Today, the enemies of justice are not lynching African Americans and practicing Jim Crow laws of segregation. They are more sophisticated. But they are equally sinister. They are erecting barriers to economic viability, educational quality, healthcare accessibility, judicial equity, and political opportunity.
“The opponents of justice are more refined, but they are equally threatening. These are powerful reminders that even our nation’s most noble victories can disappear when we are silent and not vigilant.”
As I’m writing this piece, I’m listening to the news about thousands of people who have stormed the Capitol in Washington, trying to overturn a legitimate election which would, in fact, disenfranchise millions of Black voters.
Several years ago, Elaine Weintraub spoke eloquently about the role of the NAACP, and it couldn’t be more appropriate today. “Overcoming the challenges we face today requires a new vision for tomorrow,” Weintraub said. “We will move forward together, or not at all, even in times of uncertainty.”
General membership meetings of the M.V. NAACP are held on the third Saturday of every month at 11 am. Due to COVID-19, the meetings are presently being held via Zoom. To join the meeting, go to marthasvineyardnaacp.org.