The Cottagers, Inc. is an historic non-profit organization of African-American women homeowners on Martha’s Vineyard whose mission is:
To promote a sense of cultural pride by fundraising to support charitable, educational and community service projects that help improve the quality of life in the community.
It all started when…
Thelma Garland Smith, a summer resident from Ohio, spearheaded the founding of the Cottagers between 1955 and 1956 after overhearing negative comments made about the Black Oak Bluffs community by a white woman. There were a little over thirty black families that came to Oak Bluffs for summer vacations at that time. The majority came from Boston, with others from New York, Illinois, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. They enjoyed each others’ company as they enjoyed Martha's Vineyard. The women often gathered for coffee and conversation. At one of their coffee klatches, it was suggested they each make a donation of $10.00 as a token of appreciation to the hospital. Three hundred dollars was collected and given in the name of “The Cottagers”. That was the beginning.
In the late 1950s, the organization began raising funds instead of relying on donations from its members. Bazaars were held in Hartford Park which included the enlistment of their children and other youngsters to sell grab bags. Additional fundraisers included dinner dances, clambakes and various cultural events. By the early 1960s, they were holding an annual fashion show that was given coverage in the Boston Sun and New York Amsterdam News.
As the black community grew, so did membership in the Cottagers. The tradition of meeting at each others’ homes was no longer adequate. There was also a pressing need for a gathering place for the community's youth. In 1968, under the presidency of Maggie Alston, the Cottagers voted to buy the old Town Hall on Pequot Avenue, purchase three lots on Wamsutta Avenue, and apply for incorporation. They named their building Cottagers' Corner and incorporation was granted on May 28, 1969. Also by 1969, the organization had a life membership in the NAACP and was paying on a second one.
With winter and some summer rentals of Cottagers' Corner, member pledges, increased fundraising and the sale of the Wamsutta property, they were able to burn their mortgage in 1977. The Wamsutta property was sold to the Town of Oak Bluffs for the construction of the Senior Citizens Center. By this time, membership had been capped at 100 women.
As the years have passed, states represented through membership have grown, charitable contributions have increased and scholarships are given annually to two MV Regional High School graduating seniors. Some of the early fundraisers remain but bazaars gave way to trivia & treasure sales, house tours were added in 1982 and the African-American Cultural Festival, a free two day educational outreach event, began in 2003. There are also arts and crafts classes for youngsters during the summer and teen dances have returned. To quote the late Maggie Alston, "The Cottagers, Inc. is the most hard working 'vacation' group around."
On June 5, 2006, in recognition of the Cottagers contribution to Martha's Vineyard, Cottagers Corner was the 18th site added to the Martha’s Vineyard African American Heritage Trail.
Since our 50th anniversary a number of changes have occurred. We have lost dear friends but gained new ones, the category of Lifetime Membership was made official, our non-profit status was updated from 501C4 to 501C3, trivia and treasure, a long time fundraiser was eliminated, the Black and Bling dance party was introduced in August 2015 followed this summer by the White and Glitter dance in July. Both of these fundraisers are specifically for the purpose of supporting our building fund. As the Cottagers, Inc. celebrates its 60th anniversary, the organization continues to build on its legacy and commitment to Oak Bluffs and the greater Martha's Vineyard community. The best is yet to come.