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Essential Businesses of Oak Bluffs: Black Heritage in the Highlands

October 22, 2020, 12:00–1:30 p.m. ET on Zoom | Fallon Aidoo

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Shearer Cottage, one of several houses in storied Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, that four generations of an African American family have owned and operated as seasonal lodging, particularly for people of color. The summer season of 2020 is the first time since 1912 that the inn closed to guest rentals. A nexus of Black mobility, the inn is included in the National Register for Historic Places and exhibits of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (photo: Shearer Cottage, 2012).

For millennia, Black people have sought respite from systemic racism and found refuge from racial terror in Martha’s Vineyard, a New England island, and other coastal communities open to African American homeownership after the Depression (e.g., Sag Harbor). Films like The Wedding (1998) and The Inkwell (1994) and media coverage of Obama family vacations have shed light on the island’s Black cultural landscape, but have also obscured its commercial infrastructure. Aidoo proposes in this paper that boarding houses, rental homes, and inns owned and operated by Black families have defined the “Main Streets” of Oak Bluffs. Scattered across the island’s Highlands, residences rented seasonally to Black church congregations, fraternal organizations, alumni associations, and advocacy collectives sustain the island’s cultural economy despite decades of encroachment on this disaggregated Black Wall Street. Preservation practices of “The Cottagers,” Aidoo argues, raise the stakes of “managed retreat”—from coastal storm surge to speculative economic development.

Fallon Samuels Aidoo, PhD, researches and consults on the revitalization, redevelopment, and retrofit of built environments affected by diverse disasters—hurricanes, COVID-19, and disinvestment. Her scholarship on the preservation of Main Streets and marginalized settlements appears in Future Anterior (2021), Preservation Policy and the 21st Century City (2021), Preservation and Social Inclusion (2020), and Spatializing Politics (2016). Currently Jean B. Boebel Assistant Professor of Historic Preservation in the University of New Orleans’s Planning and Urban Studies Department, she previously taught architecture and urbanism at Northeastern University, Harvard, and MIT after researching hazards to historic structures for engineering companies and clients.