The Island lost two of its leading and longtime civil rights advocates Saturday, Vera Shorter and Herb Foster.
Shorter was born in 1923 in Huntington, Long Island.
Shorter’s life was 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. Her activism led her to the Brooklyn chapter of the NAACP.
Shorter came to the Island in the 1960s and 1970s with her family. “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,” she told The Times in 2018. In 1976, when her husband Rufus Shorter was named the first Black superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard schools, he and Vera became year-round Islanders.
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.
Arlan Wise said she got to know Shorter about 20 years ago, when a group of Island women started a book club one night.
“Vera moved here when her husband got the job as superintendent of schools, and she got involved in the community right away,” Wise said. “We started the book club one night; some people would come and go, but Vera was a constant — she was the sharpest mind.”
Wise said the book club would rotate to the different members’ homes, and noted, “it was always a treat to go to [Shorter’s] house.”
“She always had wonderful refreshments, and when her daughter came from France, she would help cook all this amazing food. She was just a wonderful, happy, lively woman.”
Even as Shorter got older, she would still attend the book club. When it was time for Wise to host the club, she said, Shorter would have someone drive her over, and the group would help her up the stairs for another night of enjoyment with friends.
“I remember how much she liked to come to my house and look out at the woods,” Wise said. “Even as she got older and it was harder for her to get around, she just had this fabulous spirit. She didn’t let old age get in her way.”
When Shorter turned 80 years old, Wise said, her children hosted a “tremendous” birthday party at Lola’s with all kinds of soul food and music. “Vera was an incredible dancer, and she loved to dance,” Wise said.
Additionally, Wise said, Shorter was undyingly devoted to the Black community on Martha’s Vineyard, and frequently spearheaded fundraisers and volunteer efforts for the NAACP.
“She did good work all the time, and was just such a special person,” Wise said.
Foster was born in Brooklyn in 1928. After graduating from high school during World War II, he went to NYU for a week, then signed up for the Army. He put his college plans on hold, and went on to become a Morse code radio operator in occupied Japan. Herb played football in the military with guys from all over the U.S. “I was as good as they were,” he said in 2018. “I imagine most of them are gone.”
Foster, a World War II veteran, wrote about his experiences for The Times, and honored others by sharing words and phrases from the Army.
Herb and his late wife Anita moved to the Island full-time in the late 1990s. “We first came in 1974; we sailed here,” Herb told The Times in 2018 during his 90th birthday. “My wife has a cousin who had a 42-foot boat, so we sailed to Nantucket and came here. I took pictures of mechanical sharks in crates; it was the year they made ‘Jaws,’ and I had no idea what they were for. Somewhere I have Kodak slides.”
Foster was also known for his commitment to civil rights. During school desegregation in the 1960s and ’70s, he and a friend, George Singfield, who is Black, traveled across the country giving lectures and presentations on breaking communication barriers between urban Black youth and the white adults in the school systems.
He was a member of the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard, a past president of the Hebrew Center, a trustee at the Edgartown library, and a member of the board of directors of the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation. He was part of the SUNY Buffalo task force on institutionalized racism, and participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963.
The loss of both Shorter and Foster was felt across the Island.
“It is with great sadness that I inform you that our longtime Island civil rights advocates and members, Vera Shorter and Herb Foster, have passed,” Martha’s Vineyard NAACP president Arthur Doubleday wrote in a statement. “Both Mrs. Shorter and Mr. Foster were beacons of wisdom to us all. I am heartbroken by this news. The chapter will be updating everyone shortly on details of further celebrations of life.”
Lisa Sherman, who helped to organize a recent drive-by birthday party for Foster, wrote, “The library staff and trustees are truly heartbroken; we all loved Herb dearly. He was a beautiful example of the true spirit of giving back to one’s community. If more people lived life as Herb did, the world would be a much better place. He will be deeply missed.”
Elaine Weintraub said Foster was “a one of a kind,” and always knew how to throw a great party. She met Foster decades ago when he serendipitously appeared in her classroom, and started asking her about her work.
“He had always felt this frustration in his own teaching career that African American students weren’t valued or reached in the same way as white students,” Weintraub said. “This is somebody who really donated their entire adult life to justice and making the world a better place, and he did it with good humor.”
Weintraub would have lunch with Foster on occasion, as they were both active members of the NAACP. There he would tell her stories of his young life, and speak of plans for garnering donations for the Food Pantry.
“He was one of the most generous people in every sense,” Weintraub said. “He didn’t want anyone to bring anything to his parties, but he would want people to bring things for the Food Pantry — his car would be parked out in front of his house, just overflowing with donations.”
For Weintraub, Foster exemplified the supportive and compassionate nature of the Island.
Weintraub said she met Shorter around 30 years ago through the NAACP. She called Shorter “incredibly quick-witted,” and always commanding when she spoke to the room. “You would always listen when Vera spoke, because she was always right on it,” Weintraub said.
When Shorter was in declining health, Weintraub said, she visited her, and Shorter told her, “Don’t bother getting old, Elaine, it’s really hard work.”
“Vera always knew what to say, and she made me laugh so much,” Weintraub said.
Perry Garfinkel called Shorter an “intellectual powerhouse,” and said she was always driven by literature, writing, and ideas.
He met Shorter during his time as the Calendar editor for the Martha’s Vineyard Times in 1997, when he interviewed her for a story on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“Going to meet her meant that you would have to have a drink with her, which was never a problem for me,” Garfinkel said. “She would just orate — her mind flitted from one subject to the other, but it was always punctuated with a big, robust laugh.”
Garfinkel said he thinks it was Shorter’s sense of humor that kept her balanced, upbeat, and involved for so many years. Even when Shorter was frail, Garfinkel said, she was “staunchly independent.”
Her daughter, Beth, would travel from her home in France to care for Shorter. “Even though Beth was there to help serve her and help her, it was Vera who was in charge,” he said.
When Shorter spoke, Garfinkel said, it was never vapid, but commanded the attention of the entire room. “She pulled no punches about anyone or anything. When she spoke, she was outspoken,” he said.
Garfinkel highlighted Shorter’s involvement in civil rights initiatives on-Island, and said the work she did for so many years served as a precursor for the Black Lives Matter movement happening here currently.
He also spoke on Foster’s life, and how the two connected through their interest in Yiddish and jive.
Additionally, Garfinkel said, he would still get invitations to Foster’s grand parties years after he moved off the Island.
“His parties were always chockablock with people — a who’s who of Islanders, from carpenters and landscapers to the la-di-da of the Vineyard,” Garfinkel said. “He was the host with the most, and it was always remarkable to see the breadth and scope of his community connection.”
One quality Garfinkel said he will always remember about Foster is his focus of attention, whether he was talking with a friend or family member, or a random stranger. “He was one of those stars of the world who made you feel like you are the most important person,” he said.
Reporter Lucas Thors contributed to this story.