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Oak Bluffs, Mass., Is Where the Black Elite Is at Home in the Summer

In Oak Bluffs, Mass., sits a summer haven where the black elite go to get away.

"They formed a fortress, a bulwark of colored society," West wrote. "Their occupants could boast that they, or even better their ancestors, had owned a home away from home since the days when a summer hegira was taken by few colored people above the rank of servant."

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. owned a cottage in the Oval, where his wife, Isabel, served her famous bloody marys. Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was a guest there. Down the road is West's cottage, and farther down the road is Shearer Cottage, an inn built by a Charles Shearer, the son of a slave and a slave master. Shearer built the inn to provide lodging for blacks during segregation, including Madame CJ Walker, an early self-made millionaire; singers Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Lillian Evanti; and composer Harry T. Burleigh.

Oak Bluffs still encompasses one of the country's oldest circles of black wealth and power. Edward M. Brooke, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction, and Martin Luther King Jr. summered here. Spike Lee owns a house here. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett summers here, as does Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Clinton.

It is a destination of the rich, whether they call it that or not. Most people just say it is a magical island with down-to-earth people from all walks and tsk-tsk at all the talk about the black elite. You wonder whether that isn't New England modesty. Because, in reality, anybody who makes it here has to have reached a certain status in life and has the luxury of leisure time in a recession, can take weeks to vacation by the sea, might have at least two houses even if it's a house a grandmother bought generations ago when she arrived as a domestic. Each generation produced children who climbed into another social class -- the daughters of maids became teachers, the children of teachers became doctors and lawyers. The Obamas have rented an estate in Chilmark, about 12 miles up the island from Oak Bluffs. They are scheduled to arrive Sunday. It is assumed the Obamas will pay a visit to Oak Bluffs.

Old Money

There is a social stratification here that is hard to discern in the salt air.

But it's here just as sure as the water is cold.

It was a place where beautiful black people vacationed. The women with red lipstick and Lena Horne hair looking out from old photographs, each woman more striking than the next. The men in pinstripe suits. Adam Clayton Powell, "King of the Cats," with his hair tossed back.

Here you can watch gradations of class. A subtle thing. Unspoken.

It is a place where summer becomes a verb, as in: "Where do you summer?" And by inference, winter becomes a verb as you politely ask, "Where do you winter?" And they answer, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. The answers are clear and precise.

Not like that of the man on the bus back in Providence who explains life on the other side of the water with regular folks: "I don't roll like that," says Michael Lucas, 43. "I have to summer and winter in the same place just to keep my lights on."

On the Vineyard, you know people who arrive here have arrived. "You don't get it when you first meet them," says Donna-Marie Peters, a sociology professor at Temple University, who has come here since she was a child. "But when you do, it will be subtle. A coded word. I live on such and such street. There are many echelons of middle class. There are the new elite and the old elite."

And yet Oak Bluffs is not a glitzy place but quaint, with dirt roads, and sea grass and little houses perched on hills with beach plums. Where hotel rooms have pink roses climbing wallpaper and are priced at $300 a night. Where gingerbread cottages at the Methodist campground are painted pink, purple or sea-foam green like in a fairy tale and might cost more than a million.


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