Oak Bluffs black history makers created great expectations and were role models for many of us. My childhood friend Carroll Allston’s grandfather, Phillip J. Allston (1860-1915), was a chemist at the Potter Drug and Chemical Company. His work improved Cuticura soap and ointment, still manufactured today. The family began coming to Oak Bluffs in 1902 and is now in its fourth generation of a 110-year tradition.
Phillip’s family and mine spent summers with the legendary Bolling family, led by the late state Sen. Royal Bolling Sr. whose love for public service became a family tradition. Royal L. Bolling Jr., his oldest son, was the youngest African American ever elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and his second oldest, Bruce C. Bolling, was the first African American city council president in Boston’s history. (Bruce died in September). This trio of senator, state representative and city councilor marked the first time for a father and two sons to serve simultaneously in three different legislative bodies. The senior Mr. Bolling was also a highly decorated veteran, earning the Silver Star, Purple Heart, four battle stars and the Combat Infantry Badge. In 1961, he became the first black person elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. During his political career he authored over 200 legislative initiatives. An advocate for equal access to education, his work led to the desegregation of Boston public schools.
Doris Jackson died on April 2, 2012. She was co-owner of Shearer Cottage, the inn founded by her grandparents, Charles and Henrietta Shearer, in 1903. Shearer Cottage catered to African Americans who faced discrimination at other establishments. Her late husband was Herbert L. Jackson, the first African American Malden city councilor who went on to serve as the commonwealth’s first African American state representative. Their daughter, Lee M. Van Allen continues the legacy of operating Shearer Cottage, summer home for a host of black history makers.
One of Lee’s friends is Gretchen Tucker Underwood, whose father, Judge Herbert Edward Tucker, founded Boston’s first black law firm. He was appointed assistant attorney general for Massachusetts by Sen. Edward W. Brooke and appointed by President Kennedy as ambassador to the Republic of Gabon in Africa. Until retirement Judge Tucker was the presiding justice in the Edgartown district court. He was also a trustee of the Vineyard Open Land Foundation and served as president of Freedom House, the venerable institution of social justice founded in 1949 to help Boston residents gain access to education and career opportunities. I was one of them. Thanks to their friend and my mother, the late Millie Finley, they arranged for the interview at WHDH-TV that gave me my start in broadcasting after leaving Northeastern University.
My father Ewell W. Finley (Jan. 26, 1924- Jan. 8 1979) founded the country’s largest black-owned engineering firm that designed, among other things, the Harlem State office building, the Throgs Neck Bridge and Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Born in Mobile, Ala., he earned his undergraduate degree at Howard University and obtained his master’s degree in engineering at the University of Michigan. He spent much of his life encouraging minorities to pursue engineering as a career. And he was instrumental in integrating our school system in Long Island, N.Y. With his friend Judge Tucker, my father also served on the Vineyard Open Land Foundation, and he worked on the National Seashore Project with Ted Kennedy. When he bought our house on Pequot avenue in 1955, it was a stretch for him but one of the best things that ever happened to me. I worked most of my life to stay here.
Black history month concludes next Thursday. Robert Hayden’s book African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket is an amazing source of information. Arthur Railton’s African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard, available at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, is also recommended reading. The late Della Brown Hardman, who wrote this column for the Gazette until her sudden death in 2005, said in the preface: “When I think of the plight of African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard today, I am reminded of the comments of John Hope Franklin in his introduction to The African Americans: ‘It is not that racism has been eradicated, or that its multiple offspring of discrimination, segregation, and exploitation have disappeared. It is that African Americans have learned how better to cope with the forces that operate against them.’” As the century ends, persons of color continue to be attracted to the beauty, serenity, and uniqueness of this Island. Artists, scholars, sports figures, television and film personalities, writers, businessmen and journalists all continue to add to the heterogeneous minority community.”
Keep your foot on a rock.