White People Being Mean
Along With Everybody Else Being Mean to Everybody Else in the First Half of the 20th Century on The Vineyard (It Doesn’t Happen Anymore, Right?)
Here’s the way it works: Mostly, human beings prefer to be in the company of people who are so identical to themselves, you wonder why we don’t simply clone our friends from our own DNA. Nowadays, of course, and particularly here on the Island, we’ve learned how fun and cool it is to know all varieties of humankind. Back in the day that wasn’t so practical because:
Everybody here was Anglo-Saxon! Sounds kinda scary, doesn’t it?! Most of the Native population had been killed off, not by spears or guns but by those other scourges of white invasion: germs, alcohol, deprival of land and self-sustenance. In the first sixty years of white invasion, the Indian population declined by two-thirds. That’s before 1700! The 33% remaining got pushed to the fringes of the Island -- Gay Head and Chappaquiddick.
And then, in America, beginning in 1900, nearly a million immigrants arrived in this hemisphere from the four corners of the earth (well, mostly the Europe corner) every darn year! Now, none of these foreign-tongued devils landing in New York or Boston or other U.S. ports of call had any notion of heading back to sea and sailing for Martha’s Vineyard (Who’s Whatsit?), but a few newcomers found their way to these shores.
Let’s start with the Jews. The first Jewish gentleman to touch down here was Samuel Krangle from Lithuania, who changed his moniker to Sam Cronig (his descendants have no idea how he picked this particular name out of the hat). At loose ends in New Bedford in 1905, he spied an ad for summer work on a Vineyard farm, steamer fee pre-paid. He came, he saw, he sent for his four brothers in Lithuania. A dynasty was born.
Other Jewish immigrants showed up. They built a Hebrew center and started a Jewish cemetery, both in Vineyard Haven, and dodged the bullet of anti-Semitism by keeping to themselves and marrying within the faith. One gutsy Jewish lady, Bessie Hall, bought a house in Edgartown on South Summer Street, in 1914, but a line was drawn in the sand behind her. As Dorothy West, renowned writer and Oak Bluffs resident wrote, “Edgartown was the last holdout of the WASPs,” up until the late 1930s. Or even beyond.
Discrimination against blacks was equally severe in Edgartown. African American staff of rich summer folks had no place to relax on their days off: Restaurants and bars were barred to them. Eventually a small building on Cooke Street, opposite the cemetery, was donated by the philanthropic Edna and James Smith, as a gathering place for black folks. It was named the Open Door Club.
Middle class black property owners from Boston who had bought up neglected Victorian houses in Oak Bluffs during the depression, were unimpressed with the domestics demographic of the Open Door Club, many of whom had black servants of their own. Within their own affluent cadres, they drew distinctions. As Ms. West put it, “It was the “new” people” who bought the Oak Bluffs houses" from Ocean Park, and fanning out to Farm Pond. “The “old” black families, like mine, owned much smaller cottages in the Highlands area.” Ms. West's family had put down roots in 1915.
The original Portuguese immigrants encountered their rash of resistance. Many of them dwelled in shacks on the edge of Oak Bluffs, raising flowers and produce for the summer folk. “During the early years,” writes historian Arthur R. Railton, “they were considered second-class citizens.”
And here’s where everybody was busy disliking everybody else: Miriam Walker, granddaughter of Charles Shearer of Shearer cottage, confided to Mr. Railton, “We weren’t allowed to play with the Portuguese. And the Portuguese didn’t want their children to play with black families.”
Many, many decades later, naturally, black is the new black and also All That!, and Portuguese-Americans families have formed the bedrock of the Island community. I’m personally buoyed-up to realize that I haven’t heard the term “Port-a-gee” since the late 1970s. I’m surprised it was still floating around even then.
All during those early-to-mid-20th century years of new-fangled people arriving on this rock, many whites established summer enclaves to keep the infidels at arm's distance. They bought up tracts of land and invited each other to camp, hang, or build houses there. As Mr. Railton wrote, “Comfortable in their “playgrounds,” the white residents spent their vacations happily in each other’s company, rarely leaving the reservation.”
Some early clubs of this stripe that, unconsciously or not, certainly extralegally, banned Catholics, Jews, and blacks, were Windy Gates, the Barnhouse off State Road in Chilmark, the Squibnocket Fish and Game Club on the south shore, Seven Gates Farm and, oh, while we’re at it, West Chop and the Methodist Campground (come on, guys, you know you used to do that.)
Btw, the gatherings at Windy Gates and the Barnhouse were on the wild, politically radical side, so householders and guests may have been too busy singing arias before supper, encouraging Thomas Hart Benton to follow his muse, writing poetry, seeking social justice and running nude on their beaches, to stop and consider how white they presented themselves at any given roll call. And, in fact, Mr. Benton married the lovely Rita, a Catholic-Italian immigrant, and Roger Baldwin of Windy Gates co-founded the ACLU in 1913, defended Tennessee schoolteacher, John Scopes, opposed the banning of James Joyce’s books and, while he was at it, started the Chilmark Community Center. Still, this didn’t stop these folks’ clubs from being terrifically white in the early days, intentionally or otherwise.
So isn’t it nice that we’re all now here together? Seriously, it is! I’ve always maintained that the Vineyard year-round community is hardly Utopia, but it’s as close as any earthly society has come thus far. Other than Windy Gates.