I was 13 when I left the Island to board at Westtown School, a Quaker school outside Philadelphia. My first-year roommate there was Emilie, a biracial student also from Massachusetts, whose parents were known to mine. It was Emilie, many years later in our friendship, who would introduce me to a remarkable woman of color, Adelaide Cromwell Gulliver (1919-2019).
Gulliver, a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven, was a graduate of Smith College (class of ’40) prominent scholar, educator, and writer, and co-founder of the Center for African-American Studies at Boston University. Although physically tiny, she achieved outsize firsts and accolades amid academic honors.
Did any of Adelaide’s neighbors realize what an accomplished person they knew and lived near? It would have been a coincidence, because she was unpretentious, in spite of having lots of personality.
In another coincidence, Adelaide Cromwell, who was also a cousin of Senator Edward Brooke, had known Helen V. Manning, a well-known Aquinnah elder, in high school in Washington, D.C. However, Adelaide did not stand on ceremony: The phone would ring, and her slightly Southern-inflected, cool drawl would announce, “Abigail, this is Adelaide!”
Adelaide owned a modest, comfortable house on Fairfield, and asked us to do small gardening tasks from time to time, although she was not always in residence, and some summers hardly came at all. It would be “please come and trim my bushes” or some other small thing.
Adelaide was always gracious and chatty, which was a treat, because she had so many interesting things to say. She was what would be called a hoot — full of laughter and able to loose a drop-dead punchline, seemingly effortlessly and with sangfroid. Despite advanced age, she was well informed and “with it;” had traveled widely; and her walls and bookshelves held African art and mementos.
At some point, after the 2008 election and when it became known that President Obama would visit Oak Bluffs, she asked us to fix up her front walkway, just a little bit, “for when Barack comes to see me.” She was hopefully expectant, like a doting auntie, and was so proud of him.
Although she would have been more than happy to welcome him to her home, unfortunately for President Obama, his people were unaware of this delightful and distinguished personage, and did not find time in his schedule for him to come and pay his respects to Adelaide — in my opinion, his loss much more than hers.