July 27, 2006

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Thelma Hurd, president of the Cottagers, with Elaine Weintraub (left) and Carrie Tankard, co-founders of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. Photo by Ralph Stewart, MV Times.

On July 5th, the 18th site on the Heritage Trail was dedicated in a ceremony at Cottagers’ Corner in Oak Bluffs. The plaque honors the role played in Island life by the Cottagers organization. A group of never more than 100, the Cottagers are professional African American women who formed their organization in 1956. Formed two years after Brown v. the Board of Education made segregation illegal in public schools and seven years before Martin Luther King shared his dream with America, this organization has worked tirelessly to promote education, a sense of cultural pride, and the value of service to the community.

Through the late 1960s, when America’s cities burned following the murder of Dr. King, the women of the Cottagers continued their mission, providing summer activities for young people. Their goal was, and is, to contribute to this Island community where many of their members have been seasonal residents for five generations. The Cottagers support the hospital, award a scholarship annually at the Regional High School, present an annual festival of African American culture, and have, for the past 50 years, empowered their members to play a significant part in our Island community.

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Jim Thomas conducts the uplifting musical offerings from the NAACP Spiritual Choir.

Thelma Hurd, the current president of the organization, describes the Cottagers as being “all about giving, and restoring. We maintain and make plans for the future that will keep the heritage of the past.” Noting that her aunt had been a cottager for sixty years, Ms. Hurd observed that, as the membership remains at 100, she had to wait several years before becoming a member. “I love the Vineyard, and when I get there every year for July and August, I can think of no greater pleasure than to sit on my deck and listen to the birds singing. This is a magical place, and we work hard to preserve this way of life that is so precious to us. We want to give back to a community that we value.”

Presenting the plaque to Ms. Hurd, Carrie Tankard, co-founder of the Heritage Trail, observed: “most people come to the Vineyard to play, but, ladies, you get it right. You work, play, and give back to this community. We honor you for all the work that you do to raise funds for philanthropy and we are proud of the contributions you have made to the Island.”

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Georgia Franklin sang a solo.

The Cottagers’ Corner building was packed for the presentation, and the ceremony began musically with a performance by the NAACP spiritual choir led by Jim Thomas, an academic who can coax beautiful music even from those who believe that they have no talent. He led the choir with evident joy and the singers responded with dramatic and moving renditions of spiritual songs. The coded meaning of these spiritual songs was explained by Mr. Thomas to a hushed audience, after which voices soared echoing that there is a “great camp meeting in the promised land.”

Lorna Andrade, a founder of the group, noted that they had only sung together on three occasions, and spoke of her dream to form such a choir. “My mother passed last year, and I remember saying to her that I wished the NAACP had a choir, and she replied, ‘well, make one.’ When we sing, I feel her presence.”

The Cottagers’ Corner is an important site on the Heritage Trail, honoring the hard work of the women of the Cottagers and the role that they have played in our community. The building has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, including the After School Program, and is well-known to most Islanders. Now, its significance as a cultural and educational resource has been recognized.

The women of the Cottagers are an important role model, epitomizing the strength of women and of quiet activism. As Thelma Hurd noted while accepting the award: “It is an honor to accept this plaque on behalf of a group of the smartest, most hard working women that I have ever known. I am so proud of all of them, and delighted that their work has been recognized as being very worthy of being a site on the Trail.”

For more about the Cottagers, please visit their website.

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