Throughout my high school years in Atlanta, Ga., in the 1950s, Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard was a region in my mind. I can still remember the image I had of the Island back then — an enchanted place with beautiful green grapevines gracefully covering a landscape with children roaming freely in and around them. One of those children was my classmate, Bobby Jackson, whose father was a prominent doctor in the city. Every summer Dr. Jackson took his family away from a South still segregated and limited in terms of where black people could play, to a place where they were free to be who they were: black and middle class with all the aspirations of any middle class family in America.
Those memories came flooding back to me a few days ago as I spotted a man standing in his backyard with his dog, looking like he was at peace with the world. The moment carried me back to high school. This was my friend Bobby. I remembered how our parties at the end of the school year were timed around when the Jacksons were leaving for Martha’s Vineyard so Bobby could be included. Older now, his hair thinning but not quite as gray as mine, he has come back to a place that clearly, from the contemplative look on his face, is as magical as ever. I stop to say hello and he tells me his son will be here soon. Now Oak Bluffs for him, as for me, is the place we call home. After more than 15 years of commuting some 16-plus hours from South Africa to Martha’s Vineyard, my husband Ronald and I will be spreading the roots we have already put down here during summer breaks, tending them into fall and maybe a snatch of winter in the place we call home. This is the place we looked forward to coming back to every year to reconnect with friends both new and old — and not necessarily old in the sense of age, for our many friends are an intergenerational lot and we are stimulated by all of them. We love to peruse all manner of things with them, from art to politics, both high and low, to local news from their communities all across the country, sometimes with roots beyond our shores. Martin Luther King Jr., who once vacationed here, might refer to Oak Bluffs as the beloved community.
Many years after Bobby Jackson and I graduated from Turner High School, Martha’s Vineyard and Oak Bluffs became more than a region in my mind, thanks to an invitation from Mike Sviridoff, then vice president of national affairs at the Ford Foundation and my husband’s boss. I was so exited to finally be getting to this magical place. We landed at the old airport, with its tiny, aging one-room reception area filled with people unhappily departing, and others like ourselves, happily arriving. The place was standing room only, generating a closeness among friends and strangers alike, some of whom became friends right then and there. This is where I experienced my first Vineyard magic. (I love the new airport, but . . .)
Our next stop was what was then Gay Head, with its mystical cliffs and dunes and fiercely compelling waves whose undertow once during our trip took my husband and Bill and Mimi Grinker a little too far out (they were rescued by two Island teenagers on styrofoam kickboards). My disappointment over my image of the vine-filled Vineyard was soon more than assuaged by the multifarious landscapes at every turn in the road after our visit with the Sviridoffs. Oak Bluffs was calling. So we rented a car and drove through the enchanting towns of Chilmark, West Tisbury, Vineyard Haven and at last Oak Bluffs. I’d never been there but had heard about the more-than-century-old, black-owned Shearer Cottage. We immediately set out to find it and spent a night there before we began our Oak Bluffs exploration, which took us to places I had heard about from Bobby, including the Inkwell.
And there I discovered (well kind of like Christopher Columbus “discovered” America) one of the main arteries that was the heartbeat of Oak Bluffs: Beautiful black bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages frolicking freely in and out of the water they owned by virtue of years of occupancy.
I was so excited about what I was seeing that I immediately got my editor at the New York Times on the phone and convinced him to allow me to extend my vacation by a few days so I could tell the world about something many would find hard to conceive, since even then in 1970, after the Civil Rights Acts abolished the last of the “separate but equal” lie in the South, there were still places in both the North and the South that were not welcoming to people of color. And tell the world I did, on the second front of the New York Times, illustrated with a picture of longtime Vineyarder Texiera Nash in a huge sun hat. By this time, we had met Dr. and Mrs. Leslie Hayling, who graciously invited us to stay with them in their home with a beautiful grand piano and copious amounts of great food.
Over the years and many more trips to the Vineyard with our children Suesan and Chuma and our friends and theirs who joined us, we put down roots — even though they were in the yards of other people. There was the legendary Lee Simmons, who knew (and would share) everybody’s business because everybody found in her a sympathetic Mother Confessor. And there were longtime Vineyarders like Claudia Bowser, who lived next door to Jessica Harris, whom I came to know as a great culinary anthropologist who could cook as well as write about foods from all over the world, and her diminutive mother, Rhoda who is long gone from us, but whose Wisdom in a Pouch cards still rest on a table in our home for all newcomers to learn from.
And while others have decried the loss of Oak Bluffs landmarks that spoke to the so-called historic African American presence here, and while the name Inkwell is now debated among those who believe it carries unkind racial overtones and others who defend it, insisting the name derived from the many writers who waded there, the beach still beckons the older generations and their children. People like Skip and Karen Finley’s daughter Kristin, who married Timothy Brow at that beach a couple of years ago and now live in Oak Bluffs full time.
It would be great to have a bookstore on Circuit avenue featuring the history of black Oak Bluffs, but there is Zita Allen’s Cousen Rose Gallery, which showcases current and past black history makers, and C’est la Vie, one of the few stores owned by a black man, Roger Schilling. Thankfully it features artifacts that draw in black people looking for things that look like or feature them. So Roger and Zita are there and they represent! As do artists and writers like Jill Nelson and her brother, the award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson, and Abigail McGrath, niece of Dorothy West, who holds writer’s workshops that put an Oak Bluffs imprimatur on those who dream of following in her aunt’s footsteps — and may in time.
Many Vineyarders whose history in Oak Bluffs long predates ours continue to nourish the roots they planted here generations ago and tend them as they spread. I have watched Colin Redd, son of Sharon and Frankie, grow into a handsome young man who no longer has time to play as he once did (at least in the daytime), busily dividing his time between work at Biscuits and the new Johnny Cupcakes on Circuit avenue. Gretchen Tucker Underwood plays host and takes occasional stabs (or whacks) at being a disciplinarian to her growing grandchildren, 17-year-old Jason and 13-year-old Brandon who come every summer. And the other day I ran into Shayna, the daughter of Harry and Charlena Seymour of Oak Bluffs, down with her husband, Steve Carr and their two-and-a-half -year-old son Blake, who now have their own house in town. A television reporter in Boston, she had come to do a piece on historic Oak Bluffs. And I suspect I will see Blake in a few years out on the tennis court, now abandoned by his grandmother, keeping the tradition alive and preparing for the historic Tucker Invitational. Or maybe they will be joined by those yet to come in the Finley household. Judy and Ron Davenport will make sure their huge stable of grandchildren, including the most recent entry of twins, will inherit their love of Oak Bluffs.
I even know some folks who spent years going to the Hamptons who have now discovered Oak Bluffs and are here to stay, soon with a brand new grandchild in tow.
So I have no doubt that while some of the so-called historic memories of Oak Bluffs will fade, in their place others will be created by a multicolored, economically diverse crowd, and it will be up to all of us to ensure that Oak Bluffs continues to be a place we and our children, grandchildren and generations to come will happily call home.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a journalist and author whose latest book is To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement, for readers ninth grade and up.