Around the turn of the last Century, black people of means began to develop their own segregated summer homes and recreation areas throughout the Eastern United States. One of the most established of these was Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vinyard which became a vacation spot for a number of the black intelligentsia as well as famous personages. Here, in the mid-Atlantic region, there were several meeting and second home spots. The best known day beaches were Carr’s Beach near Eastport, Md and Buckroe Beach in Hampton, Virginia. Black communities on the Chesapeake included Highland Beach (the first black incorporated town in Maryland), Arundel-On-The-Bay and Columbia Beach . Other vacation communities rising during the early 1950’s included Mill Point, off the Wicomico River in Maryland. Further South, one of the most famous African American resort areas was American Beach, located on Amelia Island in Florida.
Many of these beaches, and beach towns have fallen by the wayside post integration. Some, struggle to maintain their identity as white folks have taken advantage of typically undervalued property, and bought in. With the end of segregation, black folks with means have bought homes wherever their fancy struck them (and pocketbooks agreed), including Hilton Head, Cape Cod and the Vineyard, as well as like myself – intentionally in the middle of nowhere.
And to ‘fess up – I’ve spent several summer vacations on Cape Cod and the Vinyard. And while touring Oak Bluffs, I’ve never stayed in the community, sharing a rental with friends on the Vineyard, and trading summer homes with some friends on Cape Cod. It’s too far away (and cold) for this Southern boy’s body, although the beaches are stunning, and the fishing is good.
So President Obama is following a long tradition. Since his choice to vacation on the Vinyard, a number of opinions have emerged about the choice, and within the black community about Oak Bluffs. Here are two of them –
The class warfare debate that breaks out every summer when black people head to Martha’s Vineyard always misses the point. For most people, Oak Bluffs is about family tradition.
Blacks who make the island off the coast of Cape Cod their summer home have not felt this misunderstood since Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People cited intraracial class division and snobbishness, and name-dropped the rich and powerful. As a lifelong Vineyarder, I can tell you that neither writer captures the nuances of the island’s appeal to black Americans. If you haven’t been there before, you might think that black Vineyarders are all elitist, insensitive and economically monolithic. People bring their own perceptions and personal context to Martha’s Vineyard.
And an opposing viewpoint –
Martha’s Vineyard has been abuzz over the last few weeks due to the arrival of President Obama and his family onto the island for some rest and relaxation. The Obamas will be joined and welcomed – perhaps – by leagues of other wealthy and successful black professionals who have also called the island their summer home for over a century.
For many black folks, Martha’s Vineyard and specifically Oak Bluffs, has historically been the epicenter of black elitism. Being able to own a home or even rent out a cottage for a quick weekend getaway is a sign of one’s class status in the black community. Growing up in Boston, I knew of many black lawyers, doctors, politicians and business owners who would disappear for the summer to that majestic place off Cape Cod.