Aquinnah’s Huberts

Dedicated advocates of racial equality and education.

Passersby on Lighthouse Road in Aquinnah can’t miss the unusual stone house by the side of the road. For nearly a century, the Huberts have summered there or elsewhere on their Pilots Landing property. Like the house, the Hubert family is unusual indeed.

Georgia-born James H. Hubert purchased the stone house with his brothers, Zachary and Benjamin, in 1924. The purchase also included acreage on both sides of today’s Lighthouse Road, which was then non-existent. Ten years earlier, James had come to the Island at the request of the Society for Propagating the Gospel Among the Indians and Others of North America, as well as the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society and the Massachusetts Board of Education. These philanthropic organizations were trying to help the Native Americans of Gay Head and Mashpee improve their lives. James Hubert, whose roots were French, Native American, and African American, had the right background for them. Moreover, he came from a family that valued education. He seemed the perfect prospect to assist.

James’s slave grandfather, Paul, could neither read nor write, but he was devout and attentive. By listening carefully in the Methodist church that the slaves were allowed to attend, he had memorized large portions of the Bible. When slavery ended, he himself served as a preacher.

In the days before that, Paul and his wife, Jincy, and their eleven children were all highly regarded slaves in the Hubert family on whose Georgia cotton plantation they worked. They, in turn, were so devoted to their French Huguenot master that they took the name of Hubert as their own. James’s father, Zacharias, was the best friend of the master’s son when both were children, and he learned to read and write by “playing school” with him.

When Georgia joined Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama in seceding from the Union, the plantation-owning Huberts turned to Paul to keep the peace among the other slaves. Before long, the head of the plantation household was called to join the Confederate Army. He left his twenty-one-year-old son in charge of the property and its sixty slaves, telling his son to rely on Paul for advice on running the plantation. When slavery ended, the black Hubert family was asked to remain as paid workers on the plantation.

But they decided instead to ask their former master’s help in renting farmland of their own. They received it, and the black Huberts soon had one hundred rented acres to farm. Grateful to God for his family’s freedom and for the land, Paul and his oldest son, Moses, established the Hubert Baptist Church in their cotton barn. Within six months, the Huberts’ church had seventy-five members. Most had joined, they said, because they liked the way young Moses preached.

Meanwhile, the family farm was doing so well that three of the sons were able to buy land of their own. In 1871, they became the first African American landowners in the area of Sparta, Georgia. One of them, Zacharias, established a community church like his father, followed by a school for black children. And he saw to it that all of his own children went on to college.

For his son James, that college was Morehouse in Atlanta. Afterward, he taught Greek and Latin for several years at Springfield College in Georgia, but it was social work that really interested him. When he was a child, he had often gone with his preacher-father to visit parishioners who were sick, and while he was at Morehouse he had sometimes wandered the poorer streets of the city and been appalled at the conditions in which African Americans were living. He learned of the Urban League that had recently been founded by forward-thinking whites and blacks to improve the status of African Americans. In his student days, he began working with them. When his interest turned seriously from teaching to social work, the League, impressed with the idealistic young son of a slave, offered him a scholarship. It was to the New York School of Philanthropy (which would become part of the Columbia University School of Social Work). And it was his outstanding record there that brought him to the attention of the missionary societies that selected him to head their Gay Head Improvement Society.

In that role, he encouraged town residents to plant vegetable gardens when offshore fishing trawlers began depleting their previously plentiful supply of fish. He had a study made of intermarriage among Gay Headers and urged the town’s young people to leave the Island and broaden their horizons – at least for a time.

James Hubert’s Vineyard year-round residency was cut short in 1917 when he was asked by the Urban League to return to New York. The League needed his help in planning a housing project in Harlem. First of all, there had to be land for the project. John D. Rockefeller Sr. might have some, he was told. So James Hubert tremulously went to the Rockefeller office. There he was met by the millionaire’s architect. Seeing the young African American before him and hearing his request, the architect promptly told James, “Mr. Rockefeller isn’t interested in blacks or Jews.”

“I’m not either,” James Hubert remembered replying. “I didn’t come to see you about Negroes, but about land.” That bold reply, which he recounted in a book that is the story of his life, Profiles of Adventure, got him the land for the housing project. Other such skillful ventures on behalf of African Americans led him, in time, to become the executive director of the New York office of the Urban League.

But Gay Head was in James Hubert’s blood, and, every other summer, he and his family returned to the Vineyard. He had bought out his brothers and was the sole owner of the Pilots Landing property. Today his son Ben, whose summer home sits behind the stone house, happily remembers childhood vacations of fishing and playing baseball, swimming at Red Rock, and climbing up and down the Gay Head Cliffs, which was legal then. He would also play with the underprivileged New York youngsters for whom his parents had established Camp Aquinnah on the stone house property. And sometimes he would go down to the remains of the old boat dock that had given the area its Pilots Landing name. Before his time, he had been told, an excursion boat from New Bedford to Gay Head had stopped there.

Until the hurricane of 1938, family summers were always in the stone house. When the storm blew the roof off of the house, James, who called himself a dedicated Thoreauvian, chose to build a log cabin to live in until the big house could be repaired.

Those summers when James and his wife, Mary, and their children, Ben, James, and Mae, didn’t come to the Vineyard, they would head south to the Homestead, James’s father Zach’s fifty-five-acre Georgia farm. There, the children’s grandfather would dandle them on his knee and preach to them, Ben remembers. (Preaching, however, was not to become a career for James or Mae or Ben. James became a doctor, Mae a teacher, and Ben a special agent with the Internal Revenue Service.)

Ben is ninety-three now. Winters, he is in New York where he grew up, but summers, nothing could be better than being back on the Island, waking up to look out on the waters below Pilots Landing and enjoy the fragrance of the wild roses. And his nephew and nieces – James Hubert’s grandchildren – still come summers to the houses they have built at Pilots Landing on the land their grandfather bought. And they too reminisce about summers in the 1950s when they were young.

They formed a club with Gay Head and Chilmark children that they called the Wild Frontier Club, after Davy Crockett, with whom they were enamored at the time. Following in Hubert family tradition, its idealistic young members did good deeds. When they learned that birds on their southern migration were being killed when they struck an antenna on the Empire State Building, the children wrote to the building’s owners to ask that the antenna be removed. Their grandfather was pleased. He was also pleased that the club members included a French child, a Jewish child, Native Americans, and African Americans. “It’s so fine to have a group of youngsters of different races playing together like that,” he said.

As for the stone house, in its early days in the 1890s, Ben Hubert believes, animals were kept on the ground floor with living quarters above. Its builder was probably James Thompson, an English stonemason who married Sarah Cooper of Gay Head. Their adopted daughter Justina Thompson Vanderhoop sold it to the Hubert brothers, and James Hubert left it to his children.

Of James’s children, all but Ben are gone now, and the stone house has been passed on to Ben’s nieces and nephew: Mae’s daughter, Sheryl Brooks-Scott, a retired teacher; and James’s two children, James William Hubert Jr., a New York judge, and Jamie Janice Hubert, a financial professional. Since there are many family houses at Pilots Landing now, the stone house is rented summers to Jenna Petersiel, manager of the Chilmark Tavern. But no matter who is in it, passersby on Lighthouse Road have always tended to slow down as the stone house comes into view – standing tall by the roadside – a
memorial to the remarkable James Hubert, the idealistic son of a Georgia slave.