From a 1972 Gazette edition:
The little white house behind shrubs at the corner of Cooke street and Tilton Way that, for more than three decades, has been a home away from home for household help in Edgartown, no longer will be welcoming the lonely next summer.
Mrs. Edna Smith, who in 1939, with the late Mrs. Louise Harper conceived the idea of the Open Door Club, a friendly, hospitable place where black help in Edgartown could come on their days off, cook their meals and rest a little, has been forced by poor health to sell her house.
“It’s meant a lot to me, and I only wish I had been able to keep it,” Mrs. Smith, a gentle and very soft-spoken woman, said the other day. “But I’m 77 years old, and I’m just not able to take care of it. At least, through God, I have been able to be of a little help to my people, and I’m ever so grateful for that.”
Mrs. Smith was a housekeeper for a Winchester family summering in Edgartown, when she first, as she recalls it, “prayed to God to tell me what I ought to do to be of help to my people and He came to me in a dream and told me.” The Open Door Club was the result.
Early each spring, Mrs. Smith would open the club with a kindly invitation to all domestic workers to join. In its first years, before the white cottage where it met for so long was built, its members gathered in the Lyman Norton cabin that Mrs. Smith rented, and sang and cooked and chatted on Thursdays and Sundays — most hired help’s days off.
The club was started before she was married, in 1940, to the late James L. Smith, who once had worked for Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., one of the most famous of the country’s Supreme Court justices. He was a butler and a houseman for the Judge for 10 years, stopping only when he felt it his duty to serve his country in World War I. When he was asked what Justice Holmes was like, he said that in all the years he had worked for Justice Holmes, he had never seen him excited. “Except one time, when he got vexed at a printer, who had misplaced a period or a comma in one of his speeches. The Judge and I never had a cross word, and only once did Mrs. Holmes and I have words, but that was quickly ironed out. I never had any trouble with the other servants either. There were five Irish women working there then. If I got along with them, I certainly would say I was doing pretty nicely.”
Together, in 1944, the Smiths built the house Mrs. Smith has just sold to Mr. and Mrs. Robert Lawrence of Holbrook.
Happily recalling those early days of her marriage and of the Open Door Club, Mrs. Smith talked of the club’s summer picnics on the State Beach or South Beach, and the fishing parties Mr. Smith organized for the half dozen or so male domestics who were club members.
“And we used to have loads of people come to our annual tea parties,” she said. “They were always the second Thursday in August. We’d gather outdoors on the lawn, and employers would come along with club members. In 1958, we broke all our records with 209 guests!”
That year the program included “an abundance of spiritual singing,” Mrs. Smith reported in the Gazette. There was a reading by Mrs. Margaret McBride and a tumbling dance by Gloria Brothers. Among the soloists were Patrick Bibbens and John Hanna, both of whom had sung with Mahalia Jackson. The Rev. S. Read Chatterton of the Federated Church in Edgartown was the principal speaker, and E. Jared Bliss responded to a welcome on behalf of the guests. As always, Mrs. Smith recounted how she and the late Mrs. Harper had been inspired to start the club.
“As you travel along in your daily task
Keep love in your heart, in your eyes a smile,
Give a word of cheer to those who are blue,
A warm hand clasp will help some too,
To those you may meet along the way.”
That was the way Mrs. Smith liked to close her reports of club meetings, and her start-of-the-season invitations to new members. That is the philosophy by which she hopes the Open Door Club will be long remembered.
Compiled by Cynthia Meisner