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Oral histories celebrate Black History Month

Black History Moments

Ruth Scarville and Mildred Henderson. -- Linsey Lee

Ruth Scarville and Mildred Henderson. — Linsey Lee

Oral histories celebrate Black History Month

Curator collects stories about the African American experience on Martha’s Vineyard.

By Brian Dowd

We share memories and stories with our rich and diverse voices telling stories of hardship, happiness, and humor. These are the stories that weave into the fabric of the Island community.

Linsey Lee is the oral history curator at the Oral History Center established at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum in 1993; its mission is to collect oral histories from people of all ethnic, economic, and social backgrounds on the Island. Lee has collected oral histories from Islanders since the late ‘70s. “It’s always been my goal, in doing oral histories, to get the voices from people who are not always heard from,” Lee said. And she certainly has; Lee oversees the more than 1,600 Island interviews in the museum’s collection.

Lee collects so many of these interviews because she wants the “rich tapestry of life here” to be represented and heard. Oral histories from the African American, Wampanoag, Portuguese, Eastern European, Yankee, and Brazilian communities on the Island have been recorded and preserved.

From those diverse interviews, Lee chose several focusing on African Americans on the Island to be part of a presentation she gave at the Chilmark library for Black History Month.

“The African American community is the Vineyard community,” Lee said, “the history of African Americans on the Island is so vibrant, so strong.”

This history stretches back many years; a great example is the Shearer Cottage, which opened in 1912 as the first family guesthouse for African Americans on-Island. Charles Shearer, a man who was born into slavery, escaped it, fought with the Union army, then later moved to the Island and built the cottage as an inn that catered to African Americans who were not welcome at other Island hotels and inns.

Lee captures historical anecdotes by having people explain what the Island means to them and what their connection to it is.

One of the many rich voices Lee recorded was Joseph Stiles. Stiles came to the Island as a member of the Navy during World War II. He completed his training in Rhode Island, and was transferred to the Island and worked at the airbase, what is today the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. In the interview Stiles did with Lee he described his experience with a prejudiced armed forces: “Racism was sometimes bad on the base, but it was not anywhere else on the Island. Island people always treated us beautiful.” Stiles’ interview contains many anecdotes of tensions with some of the other sailors, his experiences protecting merchant ships against German submarines, and attending dances on the Island.

The Reverend Marcia Garvin Buckley of the Apostolic House of Prayer of Martha’s Vineyard was born in 1946 at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and grew up on Franklin Street in Oak Bluffs. In her interview, Buckley shares her upbringing on the Island and even a story of when President John F. Kennedy was shot. “I was in my typing class and the principal came over the loudspeaker and said, ‘the President has been shot.’ Of course that was shocking enough, but then he said, ‘and he was shot by a Black man.’ I just froze,” she said in her interview. Buckley was scared people would come after her since she was the only Black person in her class and one of the few Black people in her school. She told her father about the remark the principal made. Her father then called the principal and started “ranting and raving.”

Later in life, Buckley decided she wanted to live on the Vineyard because of the sense of community. “I decided I wanted to move back to the Vineyard and be in House of Prayer here. I loved the people here in this church. When I came here on the weekends, I felt so connected here.”

Another of Lee’s interviews showcases Dean K. Denniston. Denniston shares stories of his father, a Baptist minister who didn’t wear a label. “In the summertime we had people of all religious faiths joining in the service. When I say all — Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal. It was a church. And they came.” Many of the Black people worked on Sunday mornings, Denniston said, so evening services were a big event.

In his interview, Denniston goes on to describe his experiences in Boston and New York City, where he faced housing issues because few rooms would be rented to African Americans. Cruelty was the one thing Denniston couldn’t stand throughout life. “I think I can adjust to any situation except cruelty. But you can’t go through your life moaning and groaning. You make the best. You grab the bull by the horn, and you throw him. You don’t ask the bull for his credentials. You say, ‘come here, bull.’ And you do your best to overcome the bull. Sometimes you have to throw the bull. I can still throw a little bull!”

Throughout Lee’s interviews a vast array of feelings and memories of the Island are presented. “One thing I’ve realized through the interviews I’ve done is every experience is unique. Everyone’s perspective on those experiences they have are unique,” she said.

Lee makes sure to put emphasis on her part as a recorder, not as speaker. She works to make sure these voices are heard, from their perspectives, for generations to come. Excerpts from Lee’s interviews with African American voices can be found on the museum’s Youtube page.

“I am so blessed by the generosity of those who share their stories and help us to get insight into their experiences and perspectives,” Lee said in an email. “I have met so many compassionate, accomplished, and interesting people who can teach us so much.”

     To find out more about the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s oral history collection, visit the museum’s website under the oral histories section. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is closed for the next few months as it prepares to move from Edgartown to Vineyard Haven.



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