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Oak Bluffs, Mass.: A Place in the Sun

A Community on Martha's Vineyard Is Summer's Home For Elite Blacks

In Oak Bluffs, Mass., sits a summer haven where the black elite go to get away.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

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

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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."


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