Shearer Cottage's History on Martha's Vineyard

Since opening its doors in 1903, the Shearer Cottage has remained one of Martha's Vineyard's landmark institutions and an integral component of the rich history of African American life, commerce and culture in Oak Bluffs. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture is honored to preserve and share the history of Shearer Cottage on the National Mall for generations to come." Kevin Strait, Museum Historian.

Charles Shearer, the son of a white slave master and his enslaved black woman, was born into slavery on a farm in Spanish Oaks, Appomattox County, Virginia, on January 10, 1854. He kept to himself and spent much of the time in the surrounding woods. His days were filled with hunting and fishing, skills he learned from Native Americans who lived nearby.

Near the end of the Civil War, as Union soldiers approached his plantation, Master Shearer, the slave owner, prepared to move his slaves, money, and valuables. Charles openly declared that he was going to join the Union Army. Charles was beaten and chained in the barn, until the master was ready to move his belongings to safety. Hastily packing up to leave the area, the Master either forgot that Charles was chained in the barn or left him on purpose. The union soldiers later found Charles and permitted him to travel with them. Charles' hunting and fishing skills proved very helpful in providing food for the Union Troops.

Over the years things went well for Charles. After the Civil War, Charles lived in Lynchburg, Virginia and worked as a laborer, before attending Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia.  He graduated from Hampton Institute in 1880. Charles married Henrietta Merchant, a woman of African, white and Native American heritage from Lynchburg.  Henrietta was born free to free parents, Madison and Elizabeth George Merchant, who were married in 1843 and had ten children.  Henrietta also attended Hampton Institute and later served as one of Hampton's matrons. Charles taught at Hampton Institute and public schools in areas around Lynchburg, Virginia. Henrietta was also a school teacher in Lynchburg, Virginia area.

In the late 1800's, Charles and Henrietta moved North in search of a better, freer life for themselves and their children. They purchased a home and raised their family in Everett, Massachusetts, near Boston. Charles pursued a career in the hospitality industry, serving as headwaiter at two of Boston's famous hotels, Young's Hotel and the Parker House. Charles prospered. In 1893, Charles joined Boston's historic Tremont Temple Baptist Church, the first integrated church in America, from which he was later buried in 1934.

Charles was a profoundly religious man who deeply appreciated the education he received at Hampton. He credited his success in life to his education and his religious conviction. A staunch Baptist, Charles often visited Oak Bluffs, then called Cottage City, on Martha's Vineyard to attend religious revivals. Charles and Henrietta grew to love the Island and purchased their first Island property in the late 1800's. Charles and Henrietta eventually sold this property. On August 28, 1903, they purchased their home overlooking the Baptist Temple Park, where Shearer Cottage now stands. Every year, Charles and Henrietta would close their winter home in Everett from the middle of June until the middle of September and move their family to their Cottage City home on Martha's Vineyard.

In order to help support her family's summers on Martha's Vineyard, Henrietta built a one-story, open structure known as the "Long House" beside their home and started a laundry business. She hired several Island women and specialized in the fancywork of fluting the elaborate petticoats worn in that era. An entrepreneur, Henrietta provided pick-up and delivery service for the laundry with her horse and wagon.

In 1912, Charles and Henrietta built a twelve-room home on their property overlooking the Baptist Temple Park. It was at this time that they opened a summer inn, Shearer Cottage, which was operated in conjunction with the laundry. Shearer Cottage catered to African Americans who, at that time, were not welcome as guests at other Island establishments. Henrietta's horse and wagon were now used to transport guests.

After Henrietta's death in 1917, the laundry was closed. Charles and his two daughters, Sadie and Lily, converted the Long House into several additional rooms for their inn. When Lily died prematurely, Sadie, under Charles' guidance, continued to pursue their dream and worked passionately to build Shearer Cottage's reputation for fine food and warm hospitality.

Shearer Cottage thrived. On any given day, the dining room was filled with fifty or more guests, all enjoying delicious breakfasts and dinners cooked by Aunt Sadie (Shearer Ashburn), Uncle Robby (Merchant) and Uncle Benny (Ashburn). Nearby, black-owned homes were often called upon to supply rooms for Shearer's overflow of guests. Indeed, many of the black homeowners on the Island have said that their presence here today is due to their family's earlier association with Shearer Cottage.

Shearer Cottage had a roster of black guests, many of whom are nationally known. These guests included the talented singer and actress, Ethel Waters; Paul Robeson, performer and activist; Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., one day to become US Congressman, in his mid-teens through adulthood, with his father, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., pastor of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church; Dr. Solomon

Carter Fuller, acknowledged as the first African-American psychiatrist and his wife, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, well-known sculptor; singer, Roland B. Hayes; William H. Lewis, a Bostonian, who was the first African American appointed to the post of Assistant Attorney General in the Justice Department by President Taft; Henry Robbins, the Boston court stenographer who recorded the testimony at the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti; composer and arranger, Harry T. Burleigh, who preserved the oral spirituals by putting them into print; Madam CJ Walker, hair care entrepreneur and first female to become a millionaire by her own achievements (black or white); and Lillian Evanti, acclaimed as the first African American female professional opera singer.

More recently, Lionel Richie and the Commodores, who were managed by Benny Ashburn, Jr. (a third generation Shearer), stayed here during several summers, developing their act and playing at local clubs. The Commodores provided lively entertainment at a family wedding held here for a fourth generation Shearer, JoAnn Walker.

Over the years, Shearer's charter was not only to provide comfort and good times for our guests, but also to make a significant contribution to the social and economic growth of the Island's African American community. We have provided employment for many black youth who needed work to support their education. The Cottagers, Inc., a philanthropic organization of African American women who owned homes in Oak Bluffs, and the Martha's Vineyard Chapter of the NAACP held their initial meetings at Shearer Cottage. Many fund-raisers and social events have also been held here.

Over the years, several of our family members have met their spouses on Martha's Vineyard, some actually at Shearer Cottage. Lily was the first Shearer to both meet and marry her husband, Lincoln G. Pope, Sr., on Martha's Vineyard.  Lincoln was a frequent guest at Shearer Cottage with his father, Atty. James W. Pope of Boston.  James W. Pope married Mary Bigelow in Danville, Virginia, where they were both born.  Atty. Pope came North and graduated from Boston Universty Law School.  He practiced law in Boston and lived in the Beacon Hill section of Boston, when it flourished as an African American community.  Atty. Pope was the second African American to serve on the Boston City Council, appointed by Mayor Prince in the 1880's.  These early relationships of our family have resulted in six generations of the Shearer family enjoying the good life on Martha's Vineyard.

We believe that Charles and Henrietta Shearer exhibited keen wisdom and foresight when they bought their property overlooking the Baptist Temple Park in 1903, and later established Shearer Cottage as a guesthouse. In appreciation and honor of their contribution to our family, we've worked tirelessly to preserve their legacy and maintain the Shearer property which was renovated in recent years, combining the twelve original guestrooms into six studios.


Granddaughter & Great Granddaugther of Henrietta & Charles Shearer

In 1997, Shearer Cottage was dedicated as the first landmark on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard. A plaque embedded in a rock near our cottage's front walk marks this honor.

Today, Shearer Cottage welcomes a multi-cultural clientele. The Shearer Family is very proud of Shearer Cottage's history on Martha's Vineyard and invites you to visit the Island as our guest.