If you wander to 57 Pequot Ave. in Oak Bluffs, you’ll find a large white building known as “Cottagers Corner.” Currently undergoing a renovation, this former town hall purchased in 1968 is home to the members of the Cottagers Inc. Association, a historic nonprofit African American association of female homeowners on Martha’s Vineyard. The group’s mission is to promote a sense of cultural pride by fundraising to support charitable, educational, and community service projects that help improve the quality of life in the community.
In 1956, Thelma Garland Smith, the founder of the Cottagers, overheard a white couple say that African Americans didn’t contribute to the community. “Disturbed by this statement, she took it as a call for action,” explained today’s president of the association, Olivia Baxter. Smith called 12 of her very good friends and decided to do something to contribute to the Island, and they raised $300 for the Island’s hospital. This event marked the association’s first donation. “From one incident, the Cottagers started,” added Baxter.
On August 9, the historic nonprofit association will celebrate its 65th anniversary at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. An exhibit “The Cottagers: 65 Years of Community and Service” will be on display from August 10 through Sept. 24 at the Adele H. Waggaman Community Gallery at the museum. In June 2006, the Cottagers were added to the African American Heritage Trail, and they are also featured on the third floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
The 100 or so members that make up the Cottagers include lifetime members who have dedicated more than 20 years to the organization, and legacy members, daughters of Cottagers. Baxter mentioned that the Cottagers “don’t just come here to relax and enjoy the Vineyard, they come here to work for the community too.”
Because of the COVID situation, the association had to postpone many events and are just now resuming some of their activities. By next summer, the association hopes to continue art shows at the Tabernacle and dance shows for their younger members, as well as children’s activities and their popular dog show. Over the years, the association has been involved in health, education, and youth issues in the community by donating money to various groups such as the Island Food Pantry and the Martha’s Vineyard Boys and Girls Club, as well as the Oak Bluffs Public Library and financing scholarships for graduating students. They also help out the Council on Aging and other organizations. The goal is to help the quality of life of those living on Martha’s Vineyard. During the year, the Cottagers organize house tours and in the summer they host their annual African American Cultural Festival. In the evenings, people come together to “discuss certain topics in order to enlighten the community,” added Baxter. For those who come to the Island during the summer, they try to make sure to have activities for the children, the adults, and for the members of the organization. Activities include clambakes, board games, weekly bridge sessions, theater outings, and book talks. The Annual Fashion Show fundraiser featuring clothing from local shops usually takes place in August.
“We are committed to the Martha’s Vineyard community,” Baxter said. “Not just Oak Bluffs, but the entire Island. We are committed to Martha’s Vineyard to help improve the quality of life for those who live here year-round.”
If you are interested in learning more about the Cottagers, go to cottagersincofmv.org or on Facebook Cottagers Inc. of Martha’s Vineyard. For more information on the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, go to mvmuseum.org.