The Vineyard Gazette – Martha’s Vineyard News
Dorothy West, writer of The Vineyard’s Harlem Renaissance, once wrote, “There is no life that does not contribute to history.
One of those lives was led by Robert (Bob) Carter Hayden Jr., who passed away on January 23. Its fortuitously popular saying, “know your history” fits well with this Black History Month.
From 1948 to 1993, Ms. West chronicled the activities of the growing black summer community of Oak Bluffs through her columns in the Vineyard Gazette which began as Cottagers’ Corner in 1967 and became the column for the town of Oak Bluffs beginning in 1973. Concurrently, from 1974 to 1983, Bob Hayden wrote a weekly column titled Boston’s Black History for the Bay State Banner.
He has contributed to the Dictionary of American Negro Biography (1982), the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (1995) and the American National Biography (1999) and is the author of more than 20 publications on the African American history and culture.
But his most treasured book is African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard & Nantucket—A History of People, Places and Events (Select Publications, Boston, 1999. Typesetting, layout and printing by DaRosa Corporation).
Himself a longtime member of the Vineyard community, Bob’s African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard are the Rosetta Stone of the island’s black history. The book tells our stories, starting in 1907, when there were less than 40 of us in the early days of Oak Bluffs’ founding, until it was published in 1999.
Although black people had been members of the island community since the 1700s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Martha’s Vineyard – and Oak Bluffs in particular – became a primary resort destination for people of color.
As a writer and historian myself who has often used Bob’s book as a source, I know firsthand how it helps capture the nuances of history in the growth of this community.
As an example, today the town of Oak Bluffs is part of a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History and Culture, one of America’s top tourist destinations. And while we widely acknowledge tens of thousands of African-American visitors each August, Bob’s work reminds us that when Dorothy West started writing Cottagers’ Corner, there were only 12 Cottagers members compared to over 100 today.
In 1999, when his book was published, he listed the names of 72 black doctors who owned homes. For anyone who is black, the two facts alone tell the story of overcoming significant obstacles and succeeding despite them.
His black history of Martha’s Vineyard is today punctuated by another story – that of a black man who became president and who decided to acquire a house for his family on the island as well.
Bob Hayden was an avid storyteller with a lifelong joy of learning. Any serious researcher or historian can benefit from his book, available on Amazon or Goodreads.
Another poignant observation from Dorothy West applies both to the book and to our society: “Identity is not inherent,” she writes. “It is shaped by circumstances, sensitivity and resistance to self-pity.”
The work of Robert C. Hayden and Dorothy West has been invaluable to all of us in this increasingly less island community. May they rest in peace.
Skip Finley is the former Oak Bluffs Gazette columnist and author of Historic Tales of Oak Bluffs.