Theophilus Miguel “T. M.” Silvia was born in 1877 on Ilha de São Nicolau, a mountainous island in the Republic of Cabo Verde, the volcanic archipelago nation off the coast of West Africa known to Americans as Cape Verde.
Silvia (whose surname many old-timers pronounced “Silvey”) came to the United States as a young man about 1898-9 with his brother Antone. He was working aboard a ship in Providence when he married a young Vineyard resident, Adalena Andrada, who had immigrated just a few years before him. They first lived in a house on Howard Avenue, near Adalena’s parents, on the banks of Bass Creek. (Recorded as “Rainbow Row” in the 1910 census, the road was informally known as “Chicken Alley” for its abundant livestock, and is today named Lagoon Pond Road.)
Most of the old censuses record Silvia as “Black,” “Negro,” or “Mulatto.” Other records, including his draft cards and his death certificate, list his race as “White.” The 1920 census enumerator superimposed a B on top of a W. It’s “complicated,” concludes his grandson, Stephen Silvia of Pawtucket. Less than 400 miles from the coast of Senegal, the history of Cape Verde is a rich tapestry. “He was on the fairer side, with twinkling blue eyes. Those eyes spoke volumes, as he was a man of very few words.” To this day, some of T. M. and Adalena’s descendants identify as Black; others as white, Silvia reports. “I classify myself as a person of color, or brown. Our culture is Cape Verdean. I love my roots, as my family are all shades of the brown and white rainbow.”
But at the turn of the 20th century, T. M. faced real discrimination. There were few career opportunities for young Cape Verdean men on Martha’s Vineyard in the early 1900s, especially men of undetermined color who spoke no English, like Silvia. Most of his contemporaries were employed digging trenches for water pipes, foundations, cesspools, and roads. But, perhaps with the help of his father-in-law, gardener Antone Andrada, Silvia found work in the statue-adorned gardens of Charles Whitney, a paper box magnate from Boston who built the grand estate off Main Street known as Hedge Lee. By 1918, the Silvias had moved to a new home on Pine Street, in a section of town that quickly became a tight-knit Cape Verdean neighborhood.
Silvia also found work with Whitney’s plumber, Fred Peakes. The late Stan Lair of Vineyard Haven recalled, “Fred Peakes and T. M. Silvia, Theophilus Silvia Sr., the old man, were a pair. T. M. was his helper. You’d see Fred going along the street, and T. M. was always about three steps behind him carrying the tools. They worked for Jack Bumpus in the shop, [which] then in those days was in the back of Yates drugstore.”
By 1930, Silvia had left gardening and plumbing to open a grocery store. “He had a little grocery and produce market on Pine Street,” writes his grandson Stephen. “He grew produce and sold fresh groceries and provisions. Sold a full line of National Biscuit Co. products. [He grew] everything. Potatoes, beets, onions, corn, beans, squash. He sustained the family in the winter. Also sold flowers.” He saved up enough money in 1930 to travel back to Cape Verde for a visit.
By the 1930s, the popular Cape Verdean Hall had been erected in Vineyard Haven, and Silvia was among its founding members. He also played the violin. Lair remembered, “At one time [Silvia] organized a band, a Cape Verde band, up in the back streets there, up on Pine Street. He had quite a group of people up there. They bought their instruments and rehearsed. They had quite a thing going there at one time. They built their own hall up there, the Cape Verdean Hall on Lake Street.”
In a 2002 interview with Linsey Lee of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Joe Stiles (1925-2006) of Vineyard Haven recalled, “I remember the dances they used to have at the Cape Verdean Hall when I was stationed on the Island during the War. We never missed one of those. All the sailors used to go. We never had to pay to go in; just walk in and start dancing and enjoying yourself. People would come from New Bedford. Jimmy Lomba and his orchestra used to come over here; they’d play all Cape Verdean music. Their dances are like a reel. You don’t get in the middle of the floor and just drag around. You’d be dancing like mad, but you’d be going in a circle so nobody would be bumping into each other.”
Of Mrs. Silvia, Lair remembered, “[T.M.’s] wife’s name was Adalena. Adalena Silvia. She used to take in washing, I remember. In those days people would take in their washing, weekly washing. Washing and ironing.” Her grandson Stephen recalls, “She was deeply religious. A big supporter when they built the newer Catholic church. She was the glue.”
In 1940, the census listed T. M.’s occupation as “Moth Project.” During the depths of the Depression, the
USDA’s Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine sponsored a WPA gypsy moth eradication project in key communities across New England. Men like Silvia were employed to brush creosote on moth egg clusters to stop the eggs from hatching. Silvia’s last job was with the Tisbury Water Department.
The late Basil Welch of Vineyard Haven recalled, “I remember him being around, smoked homemade cigarettes. He was a very quiet man, moderate, quiet.” Stephen Silvia recalls, “I remember he always smelled of tobacco, and his fingers were tobacco-stained. I was mesmerized at his dexterity with hand rolling.”
T.M. and Adalena had eight children, and they have innumerable descendants on the Island today, including large branches of the Vineyard’s Moreis, Araujo, Gonsalves, and Silvia families. He was namesake to more than a few “T.M.”s, including his son T. M. Silvia Jr., a master plumber.
T.M. died in 1959, and Adalena in 1965, at which time the property was sold. “My grandfather did not believe in banks,” recalls his grandson, Stephen. “He buried money all over. They found most of it after he died. The yard was like an archaeological dig. Floorboards in the barn and shop torn up. I do remember that.”
“I loved growing up in my neighborhood,” Stephen continues about his childhood on Pine Street. “We had a Cape Verdean dish most days, made with rice, meat, and beans. Traditional salted cod (bacalhau) on Christmas. No English was spoken in the house until we went to school. The kids made fun of us, so we refused to speak Portuguese and told my grandmother we were American. I remember my grandmother wailing, thinking this was the worst. I regret it now.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.