Some 250 people gathered Sunday on a glorious late-summer day to honor Ms. Isabel Powell, the matriarch of the Powell family, and the memory of Cong. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. A diverse crowd gathered to pay their respects to Ms. Powell and to take part in the making of history as the Heritage Trail dedicated its 17th site.

Accompanied by four generations of her family, Ms. Powell was a gracious hostess bidding all welcome to her home on Dorothy West avenue in the Highlands area of Oak Bluffs. Ironically, the location of the event itself played a role. The naming of the street in honor of Dorothy West was a source of indignation for Ms. Powell who insisted in her address to the crowd that she would fight to have the street renamed in honor of Mr. Powell, the civil rights leader from New York.

Ms. Powell, who is physically frail, but whose spirit is indomitable, watched as her great-grandson, Alex Preston Powell, assisted by his father, Preston Powell III, removed the covering from the Heritage Trail Plaque honoring her and her former husband.

Ms. Powell was a dancer during the 1920s at the famed Cotton Club in Harlem. When she met the future congressman, she was starring in a Broadway play entitled Harlem. Following her marriage, she gave up her show career and became a supportive wife to Mr. Powell, then a charismatic junior minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

The Powell House
Cottage has been added to heritage trail. — M.C. Wallo

Actively involved in the Harlem Renaissance and in the New York public schools as a special education teacher for 30 years, Ms. Powell was described by her husband in his autobiography as “the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” Their marriage in 1933, held at the Abyssinian Church, attracted a crowd of thousands hoping to shake hands with the golden couple.

In 1937, the bought the house in Oak Bluffs known to them as the “bunny cottage,” and lived their together until 1945 when they divorced. Ms. Powell continued to spend all of her summers on the Vineyard in the bunny cottage where she and her former husband had entertained the ambitious and gifted of their generation. To this day, Ms. Powell still entertains, serving bloody Marys, for which she’s justly famous, to her guests.

Among those present at the dedication were Alma E. Rangel, wife of Cong. Charles Rangel of Harlem, the man who represents Mr. Powell’s former constituency in Congress; Preston Powell; Cong. Cardiss Collins, MBTA chief of police Joseph Carter; Mickey Thompson, who donated the plaque in memory of her husband; Judge William S. Thompson; high school principal Peg Regan; Dr. Della Hardman, and Mandred Henry, president of the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP.

Congressman Powell loved the Vineyard and was an avid fisherman. The fishing poles he used are still on display in the bunny cottage, which Ms. Powell has maintained for many years as a sort of tribute to his life and legend.

Among other legislative accomplishments, Cong. Powell spearheaded the Powell Amendment, which forbids racial discrimination in federally funded projects. It was perhaps the most effective weapon against segregation within the workplace in the 1960s. During the many years of the Kennedy and Johnson administration, Mr. Powell, as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, was responsible for the passing of an impressive series of civil rights laws that helped to shape the world in which we live today.

Unveiling of the plaque. — M.C. Wallo

The African American Heritage Trail is a physical entity stretching from Aquinnah to Chappaquiddick with sites in every Island town. It is a tangible reminder that African-Americans have played a significant role in every aspect of the Island’s history, from enslavement, eminence in maritime affairs, entrepreneurship, excellence in the expressive arts and political power.

The History Project identified the buildings, oral histories, archival records and artifacts that speak to a past of complex and interrelated experience, and seeks to preserve them for posterity.

Sunday’s event made community history, and Highlands neighbors turned out accordingly, as dud Heritage Trail patrons Steve Bernier and Constance Messmer. The guest book shows addressed from Virginia, Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

Josh Cawley Bowyer helped prepare the garden for the party and has become known to Ms. Powell as “shoe man” because of his enormous wardrobe of shoes.

“I am a human being,” said Ms. Powell, “and I love all kinds of people because I believe that we are all just human beings and there is no need for difference between us. I have had a wonderful life and I have had all kinds of friends. Life is precious and it should be enjoyed.”

The Powell house is now formally dedicated as a part of the Heritage Trail, and present and future generations will finally be made aware of the illustrious history that is part of our Vineyard past.

Elaine Weintraub, a founder of the Heritage Trail, teaches social studies at the regional high school.