Obama Visit Builds On Vineyard's Historic Legacy

A child plays in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard. i i

hide captionA child plays in Ocean Park, with the famed Victorian-style homes in the background, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard. President Obama and his family will visit the Vineyard next week.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
A child plays in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on Martha's Vineyard.

A child plays in Ocean Park, with the famed Victorian-style homes in the background, in Oak Bluffs, Mass., on the island of Martha's Vineyard. President Obama and his family will visit the Vineyard next week.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Next week President Obama will try to escape the political din in Washington, D.C., by packing up the first family and, along with dozens of Secret Service agents, heading to Martha's Vineyard.

The Vineyard has long been a retreat for the rich and famous, and it has an especially rich past among prominent African-Americans, including Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, Spike Lee and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

"I believe ... that many of us [African-Americans] like to be here in the summer ... because of the intellectual activity," Robert Hayden, a historian and author of African Americans on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket: A history of People, Places and Events, tells Robert Siegel. "Almost every week, there's a book talk, a book review. There are forums going on around social issues, economic issues. ... People really look forward to these kinds of activities."

Earliest African-Americans

Still, the island is by no means close to being majority black. Martha's Vineyard has approximately 16,000 year-round residents, of whom 200-300 are people of color. That number swells considerably during the summer; the black population on the island in the summer rises to 5,000, Hayden says.

Blacks were first documented in Martha's Vineyard in 1703 as slaves. The real beginning, however, came in the 1800s, after the Methodists established the Martha's Vineyard Campground Meeting Association. Hayden says investors began to envision the island, particularly the Oak Bluffs-Edgartown area, as a place to develop a summer tourist attraction.

Welcoming Of Blacks

"The attraction at that time was that there were many job opportunities, even before the Civil War, but particularly after the Civil War, as the island began to blossom as a national vacation site," Hayden says. "Some of them were brought here to work in the summer for their employers back on the mainland.

"Many of those people by the late 1880s, early 1890s, became the leisure class also and they began to attract their neighbors and friends, particularly from the Greater Boston, Greater New England area."

Hayden says that although there has been some de facto segregation, towns on Martha's Vineyard such as Oak Bluffs have always been welcoming to African-Americans who initially came there to work.

"Oak Bluffs was always a very diverse and cosmopolitan town," he says, "but it was a very open, open city, so blacks felt comfortable here."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: