The African American Legacy of Vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard
By Sally Ollove, >sales Literary Manager
There was no vacation from segregation in America in the early part of the 20th century. When African Americans sought to get away, >medical they retreated to specific summer communities that welcomed them. The town of Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard is one of these communities. Though African Americans remain a minority on Martha’s Vineyard—the 2010 census estimates 4% live on the Island—the numbers are rising as more retirees flock to the island and new vacationers arrive every year. Many Vineyard families trace their connections to the island back for generations—people who loved summers on the island as children return as adults with their children and grandchildren in tow.
After the Civil War, newly freed African Americans seeking employment found their way to the fisheries on the island. They stayed and created a community of year-round residents and summer home owners. In the 1930s and 40s, Martha’s Vineyard took off as a summer retreat across all demographics, aided by word-of-mouth about the picturesque island from WWII servicemen stationed there. As segregation ended in the 1960s and 70s, African Americans began moving from predominantly black neighborhoods to predominantly white ones, as dramatized in previous Arden productions Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park. Close-knit vacation spots, such as Oak Bluffs, became a substitute, a place in which a critical mass of professional, elite African Americans could be found.
Over the years, black professionals continued to flock to the island, citing a sense of community and legacy, in addition to the natural beauty. As one summer resident sums up in the Vineyard Gazette: “It’s nice to see people like myself, it’s the norm. It’s nice. You come there, and you’re not the only one. That’s not the reality of our day-to-day living [off-Island].” Prominent figures include singer Ethel Waters, novelist Dorothy West, and Senator Edward W. Brooke III, who gave swimming lessons at Inkwell beach. More recently, Spike Lee, Henry Lewis Gates, and President Obama have all vacationed there.