Oak Bluffs, Mass.: A Place in the Sun
A Community on Martha's Vineyard Is Summer's Home For Elite Blacks

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

OAK BLUFFS, Mass. It doesn't matter where America's black elite winters.

Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard is where it summers.

Here, black women with skin tightened by the sea salt wear diamonds casually with bathing suits. And pampered black children run through the seaweed and splash in the cold water of the "Inkwell," a town beach. Black men with trim gray beards carry about them that understated pride that comes with accomplishment.

Oak Bluffs, an integrated village on the island of Martha's Vineyard, has been called the Black Hamptons, a place where for generations black people have owned cottages and pastel Victorian houses with wide porches and screen doors that slap in the wind. And fine retreats perched on cliffs with panoramic views of the blue coast where Washingtonians gather, invited to exclusive dinner parties where ice clinks in cocktail glasses. And philanthropic meetings of the famed Cottagers, an exclusive group of black women property owners who require members to summer here for at least four weeks consecutively. "Once you sell," one woman says, her make up perfect, "you are out."

On this island, a choppy one-hour ferry ride from Providence, R.I., America's black privileged class has come for at least four generations to find respite. Doctors, lawyers, artists, writers, business owners, professors and now a president. Those who have risen to the top of their professions come to escape the stress of breaking glass ceilings. Get away from the sting and splinters. That feeling of being the only black person on the job, or in a meeting or in a neighborhood. Get away from translating blackness in a majority culture. Rest for the upwardly mobile.

"We have all the opportunity to vacation anywhere else, but when I have my two or three weeks I come to the Vineyard where I can relax with other African Americans," says Louis Baxter, a doctor from New Jersey.

He is sitting on the seawall overlooking the Inkwell, a famed stretch of sand some say was named by Harlem Renaissance writers who came to the Vineyard and found inspiration near the water and thus named the beach that was once segregated from the white beach. Some people don't like the name and its connotation. But the name has lasted all these years. The sound's water laps, its cold rhythm beating against the rocks.

"It gives us an opportunity to network with other upwardly mobile African Americans," Baxter says. "We love bringing our children here. They can see if you work hard, get a good education, you can partake of the American dream."

Janice Queen, 63, a program analyst from Prince George's County, has taken her family all over the world on cruises, but she comes here for peace, a family atmosphere: "I could bring them here to the Inkwell and they could stay as long as they wanted. And there is no fear of anybody bothering them."

This is a picture of black America few people see: moneyed black families at leisure.

Oak Bluffs, one of the six towns on Martha's Vineyard, has a year-round population of 3,713 people, according to the latest data released by the Martha's Vineyard Commission. Ninety-one percent of Oak Bluffs' population is white; 3.5 percent is Native American; and 2.5 percent is black, according to town figures. (The summer population of the island swells to about five times the year-round population, but there is no racial breakdown of the seasonal population, a town official said.)

Oak Bluffs, once a Methodist summer retreat where anti-racism sermons were preached, has drawn blacks since the 1800s. Some came as servants to wealthy white families. Others worked in the hotels. Eventually, elite blacks from New York, Boston and Washington retreated here for summer vacations, many buying houses in an area they called the Oval or the Highlands, which Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West wrote about toward the end of her career in her 1995 novel, "The Wedding."

"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.

And if you are new middle class or nouveau riche, it might take some adjusting to understand why old money pays to come here where things smell of the sea and wet wood and people spend time sitting on porches with pitchers of iced tea and the main attraction downtown is one of the country's oldest carousels. Why do people come here?

Home Away From Home

It is August and the air is sweet and you open the door at Cousen Rose Gallery on Circuit Avenue. There is an exhibit by Glenn Tunstull, who uses van Goghlike strokes to compose paintings of black families on the beach. Earlier, there was a wine sip and a book signing. And the clerk is wondering whether President Obama might come here, but notes that there have been no visits by the Secret Service.

The shop is quiet, with oils and watercolors on the walls. On its shelves are books written by those whose families vacation here. "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," writes Jill Nelson, a former Washington Post reporter and author of "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island." "Absent these 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."

Oak Bluffs thrives with intellectual stimulation, the summer tradition of self-improvement. Each summer in the middle of August, vacationers leave the beach and flock to daytime lecture series. This Wednesday, there is a panel moderated by Charles J. Ogletree Jr. in a tribute to John Hope Franklin. Academics including Henry Louis Gates, Patricia Williams and Debra Lee will speak on "Striking the Right Balance: Addressing Our Individual and Collective Responsibilities to Families and Communities."

Early Settlers

This community holds a confluence of old upper class and new upper class and those who straddle between. The unwritten rules you can't break because they are unwritten.

There are subtle questions that get asked here. Class can be distinguished in a matter of seconds with the right questions about family and ownership.

Lawrence Otis Graham explained this kind of social stratification in his book, "Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class." "All my life, for as long as I can remember," Graham wrote, "I grew up thinking that there existed only two types of black people: those who passed the 'brown paper bag and ruler test,' " meaning lighter skin and straight hair, "and those who didn't. Those who were members of the black elite. And those who weren't. . . . There was us and there was them. There were those children who belonged to Jack and Jill and summered in Sag Harbor; Highland Beach; or Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, and there were those who didn't."

Oak Bluffs, Sag Harbor, Idlewild in Michigan -- which was called the "Black Eden" -- and Highland Beach are historically black vacation resorts built during the era of racial segregation. Highland Beach, in Maryland, was created by Frederick Douglass and members of his family.

"A lot of very early African American property owners in Oak Bluffs were apparently domestic servants of whites who vacationed in the areas. They had been exposed to the area. They liked the area and they bought land there," said Portia James, curator of "Jubilee: African American Celebration," an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum.

"There was a time when those cottage owners who were black numbered less than a dozen -- indeed it was a gala summer when that number was achieved," Dorothy West wrote in 1969 in the Vineyard Gazette. "Their buying power made almost no ripple in the island's economy, and they, themselves, had no wish to make waves. But they had importance as forerunners. These early vacationists from Boston were among the first blacks anywhere to want for themselves and their children the same long summer of sun and sea air that a benevolent island provided to others who sought it. These first blacks made later generations vacation-minded and island-oriented."

Jocelyn Coleman Walton, 70, is standing outside West's gray clapboard home. Walton says her grandmother bought the house next to West's in 1944 for $1,500, and eventually owned a total of eight lots.

"My grandmother was biracial," Walton said. "If they thought she was white, she was a salesgirl. If they thought she was black, she ran the elevator. She took on jobs she could have so she could take us here for the summer. Growing up here you didn't get a sense of different class strata. We were all kids hanging out on the beach at the Inkwell."

No Who's Who Here

To understand the black elite who come here, one must stop first at the Inkwell, and get to know the "Polar Bears," a group of people who have been swimming here for more than 50 years. Every morning, these men and women rise early, meeting at 7:30 to dive into the frigid waters. Everyone is invited. Be reminded that one does not carry in titles.

The questions run: "How many grandchildren they have?" says Caroline Hunter, who has been coming here 21 years. "It is not about people's work."

It might be 20 years before you knew that so-and so's wife was a doctor or that woman over there owns five houses and winters in the Virgin Islands. Years to know so-and-so's third husband was a member of Congress. What you know are names and families. The Polar Bears are "the most democratic thing on this island," says Conrad "Gus" Gaskin, a financial analyst who lives in Albany, winters in St. Croix and summers in Oak Bluffs. St. Croix in the winter and Oak Bluffs in the summer. "You can't just show up at a wine tasting. You can't just show up at someone's house, but you can just show up here" at the Inkwell.

"Here," says Eleanor D. Hughes, who's been vacationing here 23 years, "years mean something."

"The qualifier is you are here," says Edward Redd, a presiding judge at Roxbury Division of the Boston Municipal Court. "Hey man, you are okay."

"Every morning, the Polar Bears meet. We swim and the conversation is never more serious than isn't this beautiful," Redd said. "Even this overcast day. It's windy and rather rough. But it is still a wonderful day. My wife is a physician. One day we drove her car down." It has MD on the license plate. "My neighbor said whose car is that? That's my wife's car. 'She's a doctor?' Nobody knows what anybody does."

And yet they do. But it is more t asteful not to show that you know.

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