African Americans on Martha’s Vineyard
By Carrie Hughes

LighthouseMartha’s Vineyard.  An island off the coast of Cape Cod—first, fishing village and whaling port, now, a summer resort playground.  The Kennedys and the Clintons vacation here.  So do Spike Lee, Vernon Jordan and Henry Louis Gates.  Indeed, in the past century generations of the African-American elite have quietly made it their vacation haven.

African Americans arrived on Martha’s Vineyard in the seventeenth century. While records from this period are vague and do not distinguish between indentured servants (slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts by 1780), artisans, and laborers, by the 1800s all three groups, along with at least one whaling captain, were represented on the island.  As the century progressed, religious presence on the Vineyard served to draw African Americans to the island. In 1834, the first Methodist camp meeting was held there. These religious revivals (which also extended to other denominations) brought attention and visitors to the island.  The gingerbread cottages built to house revival attendees lent the Oak Bluffs area its first name—“Cottage City.”   After the Civil War, the African-American population increased further as the Island’s tourist economy grew. By 1879, “colored votes” swayed the vote for the secession of Oak Bluffs from the larger community of Edgartown.  Oak Bluffs became the heart of the African-American community on the Vineyard though African Americans (including Stick Fly’s LeVays) have and continue to live elsewhere on the island.

The dock at Menemsha, 1950.
Photo courtesy Shearer Family on Martha’s Vineyard
The dock at Menemsha, 1950.
Photo courtesy Shearer Family on Martha’s Vineyard

The religious revivals brought visitors, but, as time progressed, not all came for religious fellowship—they came for fun, relaxation, and vacation, too.  In 1880, a gazebo was constructed for musical entertainments.  In 1917, the Shearer family opened Shearer Cottage, the first African-American owned guest house on the island. The Shearers hosted African-American vacationers, including luminaries like Adam Clayton Powell, Ethel Waters and Paul Robeson.  These visitors fell in love with the place and increasingly bought homes. Powell’s ex-wife, Belle Powell, who, until her death last May, was one of the Vineyard’s oldest inhabitants, recounted how Powell drew other African Americans to the Vineyard: “He said [in his newspaper column], ‘Come one, come all, my black brothers and sisters and I’ll meet you in my bare feet,' and they’ve been coming ever since.”

After World War II, the number of vacationers increased, as African-American doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers, and business people, as well as politicians and artists, formed a unique summer community.  The sandy Oak Bluffs beach became a gathering place, eventually earning the nickname “the Inkwell”—a term embraced affectionately by many, but passionately rejected by members of the community who resent its implications.   Social clubs, like the Polar Bears (who swim together in the early mornings at the Inkwell) and the Cottagers (an exclusive service club limited to 100 members, for those who own historic cottages) formed and cocktail parties abounded.  For many of these summer people, who often lived in neighborhoods where they were among very few African Americans, it was a rare opportunity to spend time with other African Americans from the middle and upper-middle class.

Writing about her childhood summers in Oak Bluffs in the 1950s and 60s in her book Finding Martha’s Vineyard, writer Jill Nelson noted: “There was no need to be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as good as or better than they were to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for integration and racial harmony.  For the months of summer the weight of being race representative—and all the political, emotional, and psychic burdens that come with demanding that an individual represent a nonexistent monolith—was lifted.  Absent the constraints, the Vineyard was an ideal place to figure out who we really were underneath all the other stuff.  Here it was enough that you simply be yourself.”

While this spirit of Oak Bluffs continue to inspire its summer inhabitants, the increasingly valuable real estate and the opening up of the rest of the island is bringing change to Martha’s Vineyard.  Wealthy African Americans are now increasingly willing and able to build large homes outside of Oak Bluffs, while some old families, now living too far from the island and with modern schedules that preclude spending a whole season away, are selling their houses. 

“Certainly the Vineyard is not a racial utopia, but it was and is better than most places.  Or at least for the most part it seems that way, maybe because there has always been a finite acceptable number of black families here.  The obvious bond of race is augmented and in recent years perhaps trumped by the bonds of class,” writes Nelson.  Martha’s Vineyard remains an important place for real families similar to the fictional LeVays and Whitcombs—complicated, privileged, and black.