In this evocative stereographic image in the collection of the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, Martha’s Vineyard tourists sit on the stoops and porches of a row of small cottages. These fanciful nineteenth century cottages–many of which are still standing–were located at Wesleyan Grove campground, part of a Methodist retreat resort that eventually became the town of Oak Bluffs. This image shows an interesting view of Wesleyan Grove, but there is even more to the story of these cottages. Oak Bluffs has a strong history as an African American summer resort, from the 1800s to the present day.
The campground at Wesleyan Grove was established in 1835 in a "venerable grove of oaks.” Early lodgings were tent sites that could be reserved in advance by summer visitors. Starting in the late 1850s, local carpenters built small cottages at the campground whose simple layouts evoked the spartan design of the tents. Later variations of these cottages were decorated with ornate architectural details. By 1880, there were around five hundred of these cottages. Today around three hundred remain.
According to recent research from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, African Americans started leasing tents and cottage lots beginning in at least 1862, when the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association first began keeping records. Doctor Samuel Birmingham, for example, who identified himself as both African and Native American, leased a tent lot in 1862 and owned a cottage at 3 Forest Circle from 1865 to 1870. This cottage was one of the first fifty cottages built in the campground and is on the same site in 2023.
Another historic Oak Bluffs cottage began life in 1903 as a laundry operated by Henrietta and Charles Shearer. In 1912, the Shearers opened the building as an inn for African American guests. Throughout the twentieth century, Shearer Inn and other lodging establishments like Aunt Georgia's House and Dunmere by the Sea served as gathering places for African American visitors to the island in the summer months.
Martha’s Vineyard cottages have hosted African American politicians like Adam Clayton Powell and Barack Obama, religious leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, and authors like Dorothy West and Maya Angelou. As Vernon Jordan–a twentieth-century civil rights leader and MV summer resident–once declared, “It was the very essence of the black community gathered for vacation.”
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