When I was a child, and later as a teenager, my middle class black parents did not own a summer home, but they had friends who did. Growing up during an era of Jim Crow in the South, and de facto segregation in the North, blacks who wanted to take their families on vacation, or who had the financial resources to buy or rent a summer home, had limited options. My parents visited a club and resort upstate New York, where a stretch of the local highway near me is named for Peg Leg Bates, who operated his Catskills resort for African-Americans. I went with friends and school mates to their summer homes in Atlantic City, Sag Harbor Long Island, and to visit with others at Oak Bluffs.
A local realtoron the vineyard has this description of Oak Bluffs:
Meanwhile, just outside the secular Campgrounds, "Cottage City" (now called Oak Bluffs) grew up along Circuit Avenue. It was a celebration of summer's pleasures, sometimes referred to by the scandalized Methodists as "Sin City." There was a big seaside hotel (since burned down), and the Tivoli, a dance and recreation hall, also gone.
Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts on the island of Martha's Vineyard
Among notable early summer visitors to Oak Bluffs were members of the African American community, who created one of the first black-oriented resort areas in the country. Historians have found that much of the land for these homes was bought during the depression by the housemaids who came with the white families for the summer. Later, as their children and grandchildren became some of the most prominent African American leaders in the country, they became host to famous black writers, politicians, judges and artists. In contrast to the tiny cheek-by-jowl homes of the Campgrounds, many of these houses, which occasionally come on the market but often stay in the same families, are big, sprawling homes with large yards and gorgeous architecture.
I stayed in one of those big sprawling homes, owned by the family of a Howard University roommate. It was a delight, made more so by the fact that many of the neighbors were black, and I could feel comfortable. For many of you, a choice of a place to vacation may simply be governed by your financial resources, or by a preference for beaches, or perhaps lakes. Growing up black in America, you had to figure out not only where you were "allowed" to stay, what places would serve you food, and where you would be welcomed, not shunned.
The African American Heritage Trail of Martha's Vineyard is a wonderful starting place to learn more about Oak Bluff's, and blacks on the Vineyard.
The African American Heritage Trail of Martha¹s Vineyard is a physical entity comprised of 16 sites dedicated to the formerly unrecognized contributions made by people of African descent to the history of the island. At each of these sites a descriptive plaque has been placed.
There is also a non-profit corporation, the African American Heritage Trail History Project, which is dedicated to the research and dissemination of the history of the African American people of Martha¹s Vineyard.
The History Project serves as a source of participative community education and celebration. The sophomore history classes at the Martha¹s Vineyard Regional High School are involved as research assistants in the work of the Trail and also act as tour guides, site maintenance staff, mural painters, web site developers, and musicians.
The Mission of the Trail is to continue to research and publish previously undocumented history and to involve the Island community in the identification and celebration of the contributions made by people of color to the island of Martha¹s Vineyard. The expense of building the Trail is considerable and some income is generated through the sale of our book: available from this site. Contributions to the Heritage Trail are gratefully accepted and used to to further develop the Trail. Presently, the Trail is anxious to acquire the former home of the Island's only African American Whaling Captain, William A. Martin.
Highlighted are some of the illustrious historical residents, among them
Harlem Renisasance author: Dorothy West
Portrait of Dorothy West
West was the subject of a film by Salem Mekuria,AS I REMEMBER IT: Portrait of Dorothy West
The Heritage site includes a piece on West by Celia McGee, published in the NY Times:
Neighbors, friends, relatives and a passel of distinguished scholars, local officials and fellow authors gathered to dedicate the house as a site on the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard. They unveiled a boulder solidly planted in West’s front lawn and inset with a bronze plaque commemorating the youngest member of the Harlem Renaissance — "the Kid," as the Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree Jr. said in a speech, using the term of affection employed for her by Langston Hughes. Until she died in 1998 — also on Aug. 16 — Dorothy West was the final survivor of that cultural flowering.
Leonora Costanza, a friend who became West’s caretaker and inherited the house that the author had moved into full time in 1943, stood nearby as Pat Bransford, a Vineyard friend of the West’s, read a poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet Helene Johnson, who was West’s cousin. Ms. Johnson and West, an only child, grew up like sisters in Boston. After they moved to New York in the 1920s, the writer Zora Neale Hurston lent the young ladies her apartment at 43 West 66th Street, where they were joined by West’s beautiful, vivacious and complicated mother, Rachel, the model for Cleo, the central character in the novel West published in 1948, "The Living Is Easy," to much acclaim. Reissued in 1982 by the Feminist Press, it remains "an American masterpiece," said Cynthia Davis, an English professor at the University of Maryland currently writing a biography of West with Verner D. Mitchell, an associate professor of English at the University of Memphis.
Dorothy West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, a successful wholesale-fruit merchant nicknamed the Black Banana King, stayed behind in Boston, where Dottie, as she was called by those close to her, was raised in an imposing home, attended the prestigious Girls’ Latin and, at 17, tied for second prize with Hurston in the short-story contest sponsored by Opportunity, the National Urban League magazine.
Her father, born into slavery in Virginia, first gave her mother a summer house on the Vineyard as a 21st birthday present. But that one, near the Oak Bluffs harbor, burned down. "This is the first time we’ve had the house of an author included on the African American Heritage Trail, and it’s fitting that it’s Dorothy West’s," said the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who rents a house every summer in Oak Bluffs. "I visited her there many times. She was so warm and charming. She would reminisce about people she knew — and people she didn’t. She created a sort of English upper-class drawing-room effect that always made me want to have a cup of tea. There was definitely also that atmosphere to her writing."
Politicians like President Obama are par for the course on the Cape, where the Kennedy family has long had a compound. The black political history there is also rich; trail stop number 12 is at one such home.
The Powell Cottage, known as "The Bunny Cottage", was owned by Adam Clayton Powell, the first African American congressman from the east coast since Reconstruction, and also a Reverend at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He was a highly influential leader of the Democratic majority during the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960's and 1970's.
Not just a home to Democrats, Oak Bluffs housed Edward Brooke, the subject of HS student Troy Smalls contribution to the website:
Edward W. Brooke III was the first African American politician to be popularly elected to the US senate since Reconstruction, when he was elected as a Republican for Massachusetts. Before being elected into the senate, he was attorney general of Massachusetts although many in his party did not like that he was to enter the senate, he followed the advice of his mother: "keep fighting, if you work hard there is nothing you cannot do."
Mr. Brooke was born on October 26th, 1919, and he grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and went to a black school due to the segregation laws. Although growing up in the segregated south, Mr. Brooke never knew poverty or racial discrimination. In his own words, he lived in a "cocoon" sheltered from lynching and race riots that often occurred in that era. Nevertheless, segregation was no less real for him, but for him it was non-violent and more subtle. Mr. Brooke considers himself blessed to have been able to attend Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School because it was the top school for African Americans in Washington D.C. This school was considered to be just as good as any white school, and was the "best negro high school in America." Following high school, he attended Howard University where he got his bachelor of science degree. After that he joined the military and was a decorated officer in the 366th regiment in Italy. In 1962, Mr. Brooke became the first African American to be elected as any states Attorney General when he was elected for Massachusetts and he would soon go down a road to become the first African American to join the senate in 1966...
Mr. Brooke spent a lot of time on Martha's Vineyard mainly in the summer with his family. His presence gave the Island warmth and he showed many African Americans experiences that they will never forget. When he was younger, he would come in the summer and teach all the local African American children to swim at the Inkwell Beach. This was an experience that the children, who are now older, will never forget, and it made a difference in many peoples' lives. The house he previously owned in Oak Bluffs on Nashawena Park is now a site on the African American Heritage Trail.
I hope that if the Obamas do head off to a well earned rest, that they are not dissuaded from selecting the Vineyard by carping Republicans, who never questioned the fact that GWB seemed to be on a permanent vacation. Nor did they raise any questions about what he cost this country. Obviously a President has to have his staff and security at all times, so it is not an easy matter for the First Family to just pack up and go somewhere. The tentative location on the Cape seems to have the required security specifications, and is not right in town, which will prevent snarling traffic for other vacationers.
A recent blog piece covered more of the current scene:
The Obamas would (almost) blend in among Oak Bluffs’ black elite
If Barack Obama and his family decide to summer in Oak Bluffs, as the Boston Globe reports they are considering, they would enjoy not just pristine beaches, but a social scene that includes some of the nation’s most successful black artists, thinkers and entrepreneurs. Obama’s longtime mentor, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, has a home in Oak Bluffs. So, too, do Washington power broker Vernon Jordan (the great uncle of Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett), filmmaker Spike Lee and former HHS Secretary Dr. Louis Sullivan...
Among the town’s most prominent residences was Overton Mansion on Narragansett Avenue, a large Victorian house that became a salon of sorts, hosting actor Paul Robeson, singer Ethel Waters and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. "I can still see Martin Luther King sitting on the porch and writing," a neighbor, Mildred Henderson, told the New York Times six years ago.
In more recent years, the community has become the summer home of journalist Charleyne Hunter Galt, scholar Henry Louis Gates and Harvard law professor Lani Guinier. Oprah Winfrey and Diana Ross are said to visit. "There was a time when the Vineyard was the only spot for successful black people," Jordan reminisced to journalist and neighbor Jill Nelson, for her history of the community, Finding Martha’s Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island.
While the White House has declined to confirm any vacation plans by the First Family, the Obamas’ friends say they stand ready to welcome them.
At least the kids will be around people and families they already know, where they can hopefully relax and have a bit of fun. Hope they get a chance to walk the trail, and learn a bit of history as well.
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