Black History Month
Historic Hoteliers, Founders of the Historic
“Shearer Cottage”on Martha's Vineyard
Written by Former City Clerk and Everett Historian Michael Matarazzo
Charles Shearer was born into slavery on Jan. 10, 1854, on a farm in Spanish Oaks, Appomattox County, Virginia. The son of a white slave master, James Shearer and his enslaved black woman, Matilda Giles, Charles was a quiet child who preferred the solitude of hunting and fishing in the nearby woods over social interaction.
With the Civil War ended, Charles, now a free man, became more extroverted. He moved to Lynchburg, Va. where he worked as a laborer and then enrolled at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Va. It was at Hampton that he met Henrietta Bowman Merchant. Henrietta was the daughter of free parents, Madison, a stone mason, and Elizabeth George Merchant. The couple had nine other children. Charles and Henrietta were married in September of 1884.
He and Henrietta both graduated from from Hampton Institute and became teachers in the public schools around the area. Charles taught for almost six years at Tye River Depot and then another four years at Madison, Va. Meanwhile, Henrietta was teaching at the Lovington School in Amherst County.
By 1893, Charles and Henrietta had secured property and real estate valued at $2,000, which is approximately $56,000 in today’s currency. As the turn of the century drew near, their net worth grew, but their opportunities in Virginia stagnated.
By 1900, they had moved to Massachusetts and were able to buy a home on Sunnyside Avenue in Everett. The couple and their three children settled in and Charles found employment in Boston as a waiter first at Young’s Hotel on Court Street, and then at the Parker House. While the transition from teacher to waiter may seem like a step down in profession, being a waiter at a prestigious hotel was more financially lucrative than being a teacher and easier to secure for a man of color at that time.
The Shearers were members of the Tremont Temple Baptist Church in Boston, the first integrated church in America. In the summertime, they would often visit Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard to attend religious revivals held in Baptist Temple Park. The Shearer’s fell in love with the Vineyard and eventually purchased property there and in 1903, purchased the home in a quiet, woodsy area in the Highlands of East Chop overlooking the Baptist Temple Park, where Shearer Cottage now stands.
Every June, Charles and Henrietta would close their winter home on Sunnyside Avenue in Everett and, until the middle of September, move their family to the cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. While they enjoyed the Vineyard, staying there for the summer required additional income to finance the extended stay in their paradise. That is when Henrietta’s entrepreneurial spirit took over.
Realizing that vacationers don’t take kindly to doing laundry when they are supposed to be relaxing, Henrietta had a one-story, open structure known as the “Long House” built beside their home and started a laundry business. She hired several local women to assist with the laundering, and in order to compete with more established enterprises, she offered the rare benefit of a pick-up and delivery service for the laundry with her horse and wagon.
Henrietta’s laundry service was a success and enabled them to expand their business in 1912 when they added a 12-room home on their property that they opened as a summer inn. Called Shearer Cottage, the inn catered to African Americans who, at that time, were not welcome as guests at other establishments. Henrietta continued to operate the laundry but now the horse and wagon were also used to transport guests. The laundry continued to operate until 1917 when Henrietta died.
Charles sold the house on Sunnyside Avenue in Everett to his daughter, Sadie, and her first husband, William Dugger, and moved in with his daughter Lillie and her husband Lincoln Pope on Baker Road in Everett.
The laundry was converted into additional rooms for the inn.
With the help of his daughters, Charles kept the inn going and with such success that black homeowners in the area were often called upon to board his overflow. The business was a true family affair with Sadie and her second husband, Benny Ashburn (whose son would go one to manage Lionel Richie and the Commodores), cooking outstanding meals and Henrietta’s brother Robby pitching in wherever he was needed. Shearer Cottage became THE place for African-American vacationers and its guest book was signed by legends including Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson.
When Charles died in 1934, the family stepped up even more and committed themselves to ensuring that the legacy created by Charles and Henrietta would continue.
After World War II, the Shearer Summer Theatre was founded and provided live performances of one and two act plays. Many of the actors and actresses and set and costume designers were Shearer relatives some of whom also were making beds, waiting tables and greeting guests at the Cottage. Other aspiring performers also took part in the production including a young Yaphet Kotto.
The Shearer family has kept the inn operating through out the decades and it has maintained its charm and proudly boasts of its historical significance. 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 the cottage’s front walk marks this honor.