Harry T. Burleigh and the Idyll of Oak Bluffs
Dorothy West was a Harlem Renaissance-era writer, her stories exploring tensions in black middle class families, some set in the community of Oak Bluffs. On Martha’s Vineyard, Oak Bluffs became an important location for West, vacationing there as a child and later purchasing a cottage as an adult. Oak Bluffs became a major summer vacation spot for black Americans, and in West’s memory there was one vacationer who precipitated that development: Harry T. Burleigh.
Burleigh made Oak Bluffs his vacation spot starting in 1915. Recently separated from Louise Alston, he needed a change of scene, and while Martha’s Vineyard at large made continuous steps to impede black Americans’ access to their hotels and beaches, black folx carved out places where they could relax in the summer months.
One such place was Shearer Cottage. Founded by husband and wife team Charles and Henriette Shearer, Shearer Cottage opened in 1912 and became a popular (if not only) location for black vacationers to stay, since they were excluded from other hotels and inns in the Vineyard area due to racist policies.
Burleigh’s summer composing sessions were split between his cottage room and the Grace Episcopal Church of Vineyard Haven, recently added to the African American Heritage Trail. Several of those pieces were later performed by St. George’s Choir in NYC, where Burleigh worked as a choral soloist. He was a kind and supportive presence for West and her childhood friends, giving money for sweets, rides to the beach, and life advice. His praise of Oak Bluffs brought black Bostonians and New Yorkers to the vacation spot, one of many instances where Burleigh’s opinions and suggestions were heeded by his friends and colleagues. Come by next week for a post on Burleigh’s collaborations with world-renowned tenor, Roland Hayes.
“Grace Church Added to African American Heritage Trail.” Vineyard Gazette. https://vineyardgazette.com/news/2018/05/10/grace-church-added-african-american-heritage-trail.
“We Were Not Welcome.” Martha Vineyard Times. www.mvtimes.com/2015/01/14/welcome/
Shearer Cottage. http://www.shearercottage.com/index.php.
Snyder, Harry T. Burleigh (2016)
Taylor, Nicole. “Martha’s Vineyard Has a Nourishing Magic for Black Americans” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/dining/marthas-vineyard-african-american-community.html.
West, Dorothy. The Richer, The Poorer: Stories, Sketches, and Reminiscences, Anchor Books, Inc. 1996.