How Martha’s Vineyard Became a Black Summer Sanctuary

Part of The Highlight’s leisure issue, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.


The Inkwell, as one of the famous beaches of Martha’s Vineyard is called, stretches barely 100 meters between the piers on the north shore of the island. To see it, it’s just a sliver of sand, but on a sunny day the sea is vast and the precise color of jade, attracting swimmers whose families have descended on the island in the summer for generations.

Since the 1800s, Martha’s Vineyard (and the Inkwell) has been a renowned getaway for these black families. The elite mingle with middle-class families on the island: Former President Barack Obama is said to have celebrated his birthday this month at his seven-bedroom mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. Islanders regulars over the years have included Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the late Vernon Jordan; Maya Angelou once described the town of Oak Bluffs, which includes Inkwell Beach, as “a safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

“I don’t have to catch my breath here,” says Skip Finley, an author and former host whose family has vacationed on the island for five generations. “This is the freest place I know.”

Vox sent photographer Philip Keith to Martha’s Vineyard, and Oak Bluffs in particular, to capture the joy and community travelers find on the island today. The Freedoms of Martha’s Vineyard shed light on a truth about leisure in America: lazy days in the sun, miles of coastline and even the grueling and rocky climb of a monster roller coaster weren’t always within reach. blacks.

During the first half of the 20th century, segregationists posing as government officials across the country drew literal lines in the sand, sharing beaches less desirable to people of color; avoid black children from public swimming pools; close amusement parks to everyone except fair-skinned people. Postman Victor H. Green writes The black motorist’s green book to guide African-American travelers to safe and hospitable places, but the subtext was that the threat of violence could spoil even the most benign activities: for black Americans, neither rest nor relaxation would come easily .

Among the safe spaces listed in The Green Book was Shearer Cottage, a black-owned inn in the town of Oak Bluffs, on the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard.

Massachusetts was the first state to abolish slavery, and affluent African Americans had already built successful lives and businesses in the state. “Martha’s Vineyard was part of the Underground Railroad, so it was known as a safe and welcoming community for African Americans,” says Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce. “They didn’t feel quite welcome in other beach enclaves.”

With the ferry dropping travelers off regularly at Oak Bluffs and the legions of black families who started visiting from the 1800s and then built dollhouse-like summer cabins in town, the Inn helped to bring the comforts of Martha’s Vineyard to the families of Crême Philadelphia; CC ; Hartford, Connecticut; New York; and Boston.

Finley, who has written for years on Oak Bluffs, estimates that during the offseason there are only 700 blacks who inhabit Martha’s Vineyard and, he says, “most of us are retired. “. In the summer, the numbers increase dramatically, until, he says, 30 to 35 percent of the summer population are people of color.

“This doesn’t mean that bigotry and discrimination don’t exist. Everything that happens in the world happens on Martha’s Vineyard, ”says Gardella. At the time of The Green Book, few hostels on the island accepted black travelers, and the image of Martha’s Vineyard in popular culture remains one of whiteness and privilege.

But the reality calls into question any notion of the island as an exclusive place.

On Martha’s Vineyard, “I can be whoever I want, when I want. Which is not necessarily true of the rest of the country, ”says Finley. “When we get on a boat or a plane to get out of here, we call it ‘going to America’. “

Philip Keith is a photographer born and raised in Boston. He graduated from the Boston Arts Academy. His last assignment for the Highlight was to photograph economist Emily Oster.

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