Privileged and Black on Martha’s Vineyard

DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, August 25, 2009

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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 female property owners who require members to summer here for at least four weeks consecutively. “Once you sell,” one woman says, her makeup perfect, “you are out.”

Here, 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,” said Louis Baxter, a doctor from New Jersey.

He was sitting on the seawall overlooking the Inkwell, which some say was named by Harlem Renaissance writers who 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 it’s lasted all these years.

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

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

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Oak Bluffs, once a Methodist summer retreat where anti-racism sermons were preached, has drawn blacks since the 1800s. Some came as family servants; others worked in 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 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.”

Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York owned a cottage in the Oval where Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was a guest. Down the road is Shearer Cottage, an inn built by Charles Shearer, the son of a slave and a slave master who wanted to provide lodging during segregation for blacks including self-made millionaire Madame C. J. Walker; singers Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Lillian Evanti; and composer Harry Burleigh.

Edward Brooke, the first black senator elected since Reconstruction, and Martin Luther King Jr. summered in Oak Bluffs, which still encompasses one of the country’s oldest circles of black wealth and power. Summer visitors now include White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Clinton. Filmmaker Spike Lee owns a house here.

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