The Power of “ Place” About Martha’s Vineyard

Just off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, lies Martha’s Vineyard: an island of pristine beaches, colorful gingerbread cottages and boating docks that have been described as “delightfully stuck in time.”

Martha’s Vineyard has a rich and diverse history with African Americans. Former President Barack Obama’s visit also spoke to the island’s historical significance to African Americans.  At least five generations of African American artists, authors and professionals have spent their summers on Martha’s Vineyard, and the town of Oak Bluffs has become a landmark that black families have read about and aspired to visit.

Martha’s Vineyard was originally inhabited by the Wampanoag (Native American) people. In 1641, the Vineyard was purchased by an Englishman, Thomas Mayhew.  At the time, the island’s population consisted solely of European and Native American people, until enslaved West Africans arrived in the 1600s, working on the farms of European settlers.

The whaling industry created great prosperity for Martha’s Vineyard, and the idea of the island as a summer vacation destination became popular. The son of a slave and his white owner turned one of the cottages in Oak Bluffs into the very first inn for black vacationers.  He saw a business opportunity to provide a safe haven for black folks who were otherwise unwelcome on the rest of the island.  Successful African Americans arriving from all over the country began to transform Oak Bluffs into their second homes. In fact, the famous poet Maya Angelou described Oak Bluffs as “a safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”  During the Harlem Renaissance, black writers would often visit Martha’s Vineyard for inspiration. Inkwell Beach (“The Inkwell”) pays tribute in its name to Oak Bluff’s rich literary history as well as referencing the beachgoers' “black skin glistening in the sun,” similar to ink. The island eventually attracted the most famous artists, musicians, actors and literary greats of black society.  It was possible to discuss race, religion, class, faith and duty with ease in Oak Bluffs, making it one of the few places where the black elite could be authentically themselves outside their homes.

In 1956, “The Cottagers Inc." was established.  This organization was established by a small group of African American women who were home owners on the island.  They came together during the summer to socialize, while discussing ideas for giving back to the community that they held so dear. Their philanthropic ideas and endeavors became a reality and have become a permanent part of the African American legacy in Martha’s Vineyard.

In recent years, Martha’s Vineyard was given the nickname of “The Black Hamptons” due to its popularity as a place for wealthy African Americans to vacation. Visitors often meet people from all over the country that in one way or another have a connection to them, an occurrence known as “Vineyard Magic.”

Take a tour of the Martha's Vineyard African American Heritage Trail: