From the Vineyard Gazette, August 19, 2008.
on the porch at West home on Saturday.
Written by MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
Keepsakes on the porch at West home on Saturday.Longtime
friends and followers of the late Dorothy West gathered on Saturday
afternoon in the shade on a hot August day to pay tribute to the
writer, who was the last surviving member of the Harlem renaissance,
and to share memories. A new stone was unveiled at her former home
on Myrtle avenue in an area of Oak Bluffs known as the Highlands,
where the cottages are brushed with dappled sunlight and cats wander
the woods. There were speeches, readings and poetry and many recalled
stories of the writer’s vibrant life and the porch where she
sat to write and greet guests.
The Dorothy West home is now a stop on the African American Heritage
Trail of Martha’s Vineyard.
Elaine Weintraub speaks of Dorothy West’s honored place
on Heritage Trail.Elaine Cawley Weintraub a history teacher at
the regional high school who is chairman of the heritage trail
project, opened the dedication ceremonies. More than 40 people
gathered around the cloth-covered stone marker to hear stories.
“There is no life that does not contribute to history,”
the plaque quoted the author.
As Mrs. Weintraub spoke, her colleague and heritage trail co-founder
Carrie Tankard stood nearby. This was the 22nd site on the trail,
which traces and celebrates black history on the Island.
“We are very honored that you are all here
to share in this,” Mrs. Weintraub said. “Dorothy was
very gracious and very kind and often invited me over. She told
me stories about growing up. I also saw her in the high school where
she used to come in and teach some of the kids in the senior English
class about how to write.”
Weintraub speaks of Dorothy West’s honored place on
Ms. Costanza, who inherited West house, unveils plaque at Saturday
event.The heritage trail was begun in 1998, and Mrs. Weintraub
spoke about its mission. The plaques and trail markers stand on
side streets, at crossroads, in front of homes and on conservation
land. Standing behind Mrs. Weintraub was Leonora Costanza, a longtime
friend, caregiver and confident who inherited Ms. West’s
house and had worked with the heritage trail organization helped
to place the stone in the front yard as a tribute.
Leonora Costanza with Carleen Cordwell.As others spoke, Ms. Costanza
stood quietly, at times touching a handkerchief to her eye.
Costanza, who inherited West house, unveils plaque at Saturday
Carleen Cordwell praised the writer as an Oak
Bluffs resident and friend.
Lionel Bascon, a writer and longtime follower
of Dorothy West, came up from Danbury, Conn. to attend the dedication.
Mr. Bascon earlier in the year wrote and edited a collection of
short stories by her titled The Last Leaf of Harlem: Selected
and Newly Discovered Fiction by the Author of The Wedding, by
good crowd enjoyed the warm morning and the special event..
Twenty years before he had edited a collection
of stories called A Renaissance in Harlem: Lost Voices of an American
Community, where he had also used stories by Ms. West.
He recalled how he had discovered her writings
while doing research at the Library of Congress for his first
book. Mr. Bascom said he is pleased that Ms. West is now finally
being recognized. “Dorothy is an icon on the Vineyard, yet
she is also one of the 20th century’s most accomplished
story writers and she has never been given full credit for that.”
Porch with a view: Dorothy West’s home in
the Highlands section of Oak Bluffs.Anne Peterson Jennings, a
neighbor, also knew Ms. West and recalled a time when the writer
went hunting for a cat. “I knew her as far back as when
I was a young woman. She was just a wonderful neighbor, a beautiful
person. I remember bringing my children to introduce to her. Everyone
knew Dorothy West,” she said. “She would have tea
and everyone would chat. She loved children,” she added.
After refreshments more than 50 people climbed
into a bus for a tour of the nine other heritage trail sites in
The ride finished at the Shearer Cottage, also
in the neighborhood, where there was a reception.
Trail stops here for Dorothy West. There Charles
Ogletree praised the stories of Dorothy West and also spoke about
the continuing mission to share the stories with students at the
regional high school. To that end, five regional high school students
took up a collection. Students Sarah Hall, Troy Small, Mike Kendall,
Anna Hayes, and Randall Jette collected $4,500 for the continuing
mission of the Heritage Trail.
House Proud in Historic Enclave
By CELIA McGEE
Published: New York Times, August 17, 2008
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — It serves no purpose except sea-air-scented
confusion to look for Dorothy West’s house on Dorothy West
Avenue. Her cottage stands on Myrtle Avenue, in the part of Oak
Bluffs known as the Highlands and since the early 20th century
as a summer haven on Martha’s Vineyard for an African-American
The street named for her more than a decade ago
intersects with the one where she used to sit on her porch entertaining
visitors — or, late in life, waited inside with manuscript
pages and tiny scribbled notes for her Doubleday editor and friend,
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to arrive for their weekly work sessions
on “The Wedding.” That novel, her second and her first
in 47 years, was finally published in 1995, when Miss West, as
it was always important to address her, was 88.
But on Saturday it got a little easier to find
Neighbors, friends, relatives and a passel of
distinguished scholars, local officials and fellow authors gathered
to dedicate the house as a site on the African American Heritage
Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. They unveiled a boulder solidly
planted in West’s front lawn and inset with a bronze plaque
commemorating the youngest member of the Harlem Renaissance —
“the Kid,” as the Harvard law professor Charles J.
Ogletree Jr. said in a speech, using the term of affection employed
for her by Langston Hughes. Until she died in 1998 — also
on Aug. 16 — Dorothy West was the final survivor of that
Leonora Costanza, a friend who became West’s
caretaker and inherited the house that the author had moved into
full time in 1943, stood nearby as Pat Bransford, a Vineyard friend
of the West’s, read a poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet
Helene Johnson, who was West’s cousin. Ms. Johnson and West,
an only child, grew up like sisters in Boston. After they moved
to New York in the 1920s, the writer Zora Neale Hurston lent the
young ladies her apartment at 43 West 66th Street, where they
were joined by West’s beautiful, vivacious and complicated
mother, Rachel, the model for Cleo, the central character in the
novel West published in 1948, “The Living Is Easy,”
to much acclaim. Reissued in 1982 by the Feminist Press, it remains
“an American masterpiece,” said Cynthia Davis, an
English professor at the University of Maryland currently writing
a biography of West with Verner D. Mitchell, an associate professor
of English at the University of Memphis.
Dorothy West’s father, Isaac Christopher
West, a successful wholesale-fruit merchant nicknamed the Black
Banana King, stayed behind in Boston, where Dottie, as she was
called by those close to her, was raised in an imposing home,
attended the prestigious Girls’ Latin and, at 17, tied for
second prize with Hurston in the short-story contest sponsored
by Opportunity, the National Urban League magazine.
Her father, born into slavery in Virginia, first
gave her mother a summer house on the Vineyard as a 21st birthday
present. But that one, near the Oak Bluffs harbor, burned down.
“This is the first time we’ve had
the house of an author included on the African American Heritage
Trail, and it’s fitting that it’s Dorothy West’s,”
said the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who rents a
house every summer in Oak Bluffs. “I visited her there many
times. She was so warm and charming. She would reminisce about
people she knew — and people she didn’t. She created
a sort of English upper-class drawing-room effect that always
made me want to have a cup of tea. There was definitely also that
atmosphere to her writing.”
In 1948, while working in the billing department
at The Vineyard Gazette, West began a column on people, events
and her beloved nature haunts in and around Oak Bluffs. “She
was certainly the voice of black society on the Vineyard,”
said Mr. Gates. “I first came here in 1981, and it was only
at the end of the summer that I realized that this was the same
Dorothy West — who I had thought was long gone.”
Another reason for West’s unwanted obscurity,
and her second novel’s decades-long gestation, was the low
profile she kept in the face of the militant or street-inflected
African-American literature that emerged with the ’60s.
But in the kind of twist with which West salted
her writing, fame arrived in the 1990s when Oprah Winfrey produced
a two-part television movie of “The Wedding.” Many
at the time were unaware that during the Depression, West worked
as a welfare relief investigator and for the W.P.A. Federal Writers’
Project, traveled to Britain with the cast of “Porgy and
Bess” and joined other prominent black artists, activists
and theater people on a trip to the Soviet Union to make the movie
“Black and White.” During the ’30s she also
founded and edited two magazines, The Challenge and, with Richard
Wright, The New Challenge.
Halle Berry starred in “The Wedding,”
and “Dottie had Oprah on speed dial,” said Abigail
McGrath, the West niece whose wedding inspired the novel and who
owns the cottage next door. “Once, she called Oprah when
she thought someone had parked illegally in front of her house.”
West stipulated in her will the creation of a
writing and journalism scholarship at Martha’s Vineyard
Regional High School. Elaine Cawley Weintraub, co-founder of the
African American Heritage Trail, teaches history there. “I
started the trail because many of my students were African-Americans
from the Vineyard,” she said, “and there was almost
nothing about the African-American presence, which goes back as
far as whites’.”
On a bus tour that followed the dedication ceremony
Ms. Weintraub pointed out designated landmarks associated with
historical figures like the Vineyard’s only African-American
whaling captain; the 18th-century preacher who brought Methodism
to the island; Isabell and Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whose former
house is at the corner of Myrtle and Dorothy West Avenues; and
the family of Charles and Henrietta Shearer, who boarded many
prominent artists, writers and musicians at their Shearer Cottage,
where a celebratory reception was held late Saturday afternoon.
One of the many people pleased with the fresh
attention that the new memorial plaque will bring to West and
her work was her goddaughter, Blythe Coleman-Simmons, Ms. Costanza’s
daughter and the sixth generation of her family in the Highlands.
“Dorothy was like a grandmother to me,”
she said, “and a mother to my mother. When I was 2, I started
to dress myself, with everything on backwards or inside out, and
say, ‘I’m going to Dottie’s house.’ Later
we would talk about everything and take walks. She loved feeding
the birds. She collected stray cats. I would practice my writing
and reading with her. But the richness of her house should also
come from other people seeing its richness. And seeing where that
magnificent writing came from.”