African Americans leased tent and cottage lots on the Association grounds at least as early as 1862, the first year such records were kept. Noteworthy among these early cottagers were Dr. Samuel Birmingham, who had the cottage at 3 Forest Circle built in 1865, and the Rev. William Jackson who, between he and his daughter, owned the cottage at 12 Central Ave. from 1871 to 1922. Early photos of the Campground also show Black families outside of the tents that they called their Camp Meeting homes.
There are references in the Camp Meeting journals about the 10th meeting in 1844, where Hebron Vincent recounted the story of attendees responding to one anguished mother’s plea and raised fifty dollars (a considerable sum in its day) to purchase her son’s freedom from slavery. Frederick Douglass spoke at the Campground in 1876. Black preachers conducted services at the Tabernacle in the late 19th century, and early photographs show integrated congregations in the Tabernacle (although the number of Black congregants is few).
The policy and practice of the MVCMA in the latter part of the 19th century, however, was to segregate leaseholders of color at the extreme fringes of the grounds. This policy is reflected in MVCMA Board minutes from 1872, which state that it was “voted that the question of locating colored people be left with the agent,” and is confirmed by the lease records for the latter part of the 19th century.
In 1887 a group of white leaseholders petitioned the MVCMA not to grant leases to people of color in their neighborhood of the Campground. In response to that petition, the Board took the following action:
“The following was unanimously adopted –
That we, as Directors of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, in response to these petitioners would say, that we, judge it improper and illegal to make distinctions among our tenants on the ground of color.”
Notwithstanding the foregoing resolution, the consistent practice of the MVCMA from the early 1870’s until the early 1900’s was to segregate leaseholders of color to only certain marginal regions of the grounds, before the practice became one of outright exclusion of people of color for much of the 20th century.
The MVCMA records indicate that in 1895 a group of cottages owned by leaseholders of color (referred to as “shanties” in the MVCMA records) were relocated by the Association to be even farther from the center of the Campground. In 1910, a number of the cottages owned by leaseholders of color were removed entirely from the Association grounds, following a lengthy discussion of that action at the annual Board meeting that year. Thereafter there appear to have been no new leases granted to persons of color throughout much of the 20th century.
In the ensuing years of the 20th century, the MVCMA records make repeated references to the need to avoid “undesirable” tenants, with the 1928 Board minutes including a vote to notify real estate agents that cottages may not be leased or sublet to persons who are not “in sympathy” with the religious purposes for which this Association was established. Catholics were openly excluded from the Campground on that basis.
1960 Board minutes reflect that there was discussion “concerning the position of the Board on color line on the grounds.” The minutes note that the MVCMA’s attorney had advised not to refuse any applicant who had appropriate character references.
In 1962 the Campground found itself to be the subject of a legal complaint filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General that its practices discriminated against people who were not white. The Board minutes at the time asserted that the exclusionary practices referred to in the complaint were conducted by a former Campground representative who was “long since dead.” The case was apparently closed without the MVCMA being required to take any action, although the Board minutes in 1963 noted that it was, “of utmost importance that any such occurrence should be guarded against in the future” due to the risk of future legal liability. Despite this episode the Board did not see fit at that time to change its form application for renters, which at least as late as 1965 required the applicant to identify his/her race.
Today, the MVCMA seeks to continue the progress it has made in becoming a more welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community for all, and we believe that an accounting of our past practices is an important part of that process.
Do you have any information or photos to add to the racial history of the Campground? We welcome additional content. Please email any thoughts or information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
*We wish to acknowledge the research efforts of Andrew Patch in providing much of the information for this narrative.
Our Social Justice, Diversity, & Inclusivity Task Force
In response to current societal issues, in July 2020 the MVCMA Board created the Social Justice, Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, a committee which will report directly to the Board. The purpose is to advance knowledge and promote change in the Campground in the name of equity and justice.
Towards that end, the Task Force adopted the following mission statement"
“To discover and advance the rich history of the MVCMA (both inclusionary and exclusionary), promote unity in our community, deepen a shared sense of belonging, and become a more welcoming, diverse, and inclusive community for all.”
Since our past helps to explain our present, the Task Force will, from time to time, post on the MVCMA’s website some of the history of the Campground that it has uncovered pertaining to the values referenced in its mission statement.
Additionally, to glean a better understanding of our present state, the Task Force intends to distribute a survey to the Campground’s stakeholders to ascertain perceptions of the values of social justice, diversity and inclusion as they relate to the MVCMA. The Task Force believes such efforts are an important step in furthering the goal of making the Campground indeed welcoming to all.
For membership of the Task Force please click here.