- Posted November 27, 2010 by
New York, New York
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Revisiting civil rights history
Revisiting African-American History on Martha’s Vineyard
OAK BLUFFS, Mass. — As a getaway for two Democratic presidents, including the current one, Martha’s Vineyard is often disparaged as an undemocratic haven for wealthy white elites. Kathlyn Joy Gilliam and Lorraine Parson thought differently from what they had read in black history books, and longed to visit. “It’s always been said this is where the elite African-Americans came,” said Ms. Parson, 74. Mrs. Gilliam, her 79-year-old sister, added, “I didn’t realize how many African-Americans were here, though.” By chance, the two women finally visited last week, while President Obama was here for his second August vacation since taking office. They did not see him, but they saw much of the island on a daylong tour of its African-American Heritage Trail: 22 sites that someday will probably add a stop for the secluded farm the first black president rented. The island has often been called self-segregated, with most African-Americans here in Oak Bluffs. Its harbor drew freed slaves, laborers and sailors in the 18th century, and white locals sold them land. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, middle-class blacks bought or rented summer homes; many descendants returned annually. Most affluent whites live in Edgartown to the southeast or on farms and estates to the west, where Mr. Obama stays. But many African-Americans here, year-rounders and summer visitors alike, insist it is not segregated. “This is one of the most integrated communities, racially and economically, that there is,” said Vernon Jordan, the lawyer and former civil rights leader, who has rented a summer place for years. His wife, Ann, came here as a child from segregated Tuskegee, Ala., with her father, a surgeon. Her cousin is Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama’s longtime friend and adviser, who has vacationed here since she was a child. “We’d hitchhike all over the island,” Ms. Jarrett said. “I never experienced a hint of discrimination on the island in more than 40 years.” Influenced by Ms. Jarrett and other friends, Mr. Obama visited several times before he became president. In August 2004, amid his campaign for the Senate, Mr. Obama was here for a forum on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruling against segregated schools. Also participating were two summer residents and Harvard professors, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Charles J. Ogletree Jr. In 2007, Mr. Obama came for a fund-raiser when he was running for president. He called the island “one of those magical places where people of all different walks of life come together, where they take each other at face value.” According to the book “African-Americans on Martha’s Vineyard,” a 1947 article in Ebony magazine said the “most exclusive Negro summer colony in the country is at quaint historical Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.” It added, “Negro and white swim together on the public beaches, rub shoulders at public affairs.” Forty-two years later, in 1989, Ebony again declared the island “a vacation mecca.” The heritage trail includes stops at the houses of former Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the first black senator after Reconstruction and the first from the North; former Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr.; and Dorothy West, a Harlem Renaissance writer who for two summers in the 1990s was visited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, another Vineyard resident and a Doubleday editor who guided Ms. West to finish her novel “The Wedding.” Also on the tour is the oceanfront mansion of Joseph Overton, the onetime Harlem labor leader, which was known as the Summer White House of the civil rights movement. It faces the Inkwell beach, named long ago by black youths or black writers — no one seems certain. The house’s visitors included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who vacationed on the island with his family a number of times, as well as Joe Louis, Harry Belafonte and Jesse Jackson. The exclusive Chilmark area has Rebecca’s Field, land that the enslaved Rebecca Amos inherited and farmed until 1801. Edgartown has a plaque honoring the daughter who was taken from her to be enslaved elsewhere, Nancy Michael, called “Black Nance.” It calls her “a most singular character” — in the words of an 1857 obituary — for the spells she conjured for departing ship captains. And on Chappaquiddick is the dilapidated house of her grandson, William Martin, who became one of the few black whaling ship captains in New England. The tour guide, Alex Palmer, said the heritage trail group had been trying to raise money to restore the 1830 house or see it sold to someone who would do the restoration, but had been unsuccessful. Yet when he drove to the site, a new owner, Michael Partenio, was there with his two young sons. Mr. Partenio, a photographer and producer from Danbury, Conn., who is white, said he would rebuild the house much the way Captain Martin knew it — and admit tour groups. He had already bought a guestbook; the visiting African-American women were the first to sign. Mae Margaret Donaldson, 65, of Dallas, a cousin of Mrs. Gilliam and Ms. Parson, was so moved that she told everyone to hold hands in a circle. She prayed for a blessing on the house and its owners. Then she hugged Mr. Partenio. “We’re going to take good care of it,” he told her.