Martha's Vineyard Blends Vacation, History For Blacks

Obamas Visit Martha's Vineyard i i

hide captionThe Obamas arrived on Martha's Vineyard this Sunday for a week-long vacation.

Jewel Samad/Getty
Obamas Visit Martha's Vineyard

The Obamas arrived on Martha's Vineyard this Sunday for a week-long vacation.

Jewel Samad/Getty

President Barack Obama and his family are vacationing on Martha's Vineyard this week. The island, off the coast of Massachusetts, has played host too many famous faces, including former President Clinton and his family, filmmaker Spike Lee and the Kennedy's. Jill Nelson, author of "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island" explains the Vineyard's appeal the unique history of African-Americans on the island.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden in for Michel Martin. You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a journalist writes an expose about a career criminal - his own dad. Newsweek reporter Tony Dokoupil gives us the story behind his article, "My Father is a Dope Dealer."

But first, President Obama and his family begin their first full day of vacation today in Martha's Vineyard. The island off the coast of Massachusetts has become a favorite retreat for the rich and politically connected including former President Bill Clinton and his family.

And the Obama's holiday continues a rich history of a thriving African-American summer community in Martha's Vineyard. It's a story that writer Jill Nelson chronicled in her book, "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans At Home On An Island." And Ms. Nelson joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Ms. JILL NELSON (Author, "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans at Home on an Island"): Thank you.

LUDDEN: So can you tell me what is the history on Martha's Vineyard of African Americans settling there?

Ms. NELSON: Well, as in most places in this country, there were slaves on Martha's Vineyard. The state of Massachusetts prohibited slavery in 1780 and then abolished slavery completely in 1783, which was early.

African-Americans have been on the island since the first whites came in the late 1700, but there were black families we know living on Martha's Vineyard. African-Americans came in the late 1800s often as workers, bakers, cooks, housekeepers for affluent white families, fell in love with the place and sunk down their own roots and bought into a piece of the rock.

LUDDEN: I've read that even before the Civil War and, in a big way, after the Civil War, it was basically a place you can find jobs.

Ms. NELSON: Absolutely. It was a place you can find jobs and also escape the sort of dominant racial culture of the country at that time. And oddly enough, in some ways, I think that has continued.

Up until September 11th, in the town of Oak Bluffs there were two mailboxes: one said on island, and the other said America. And that kind of sums up in some ways an essential part of the character of Martha's Vineyard. You are in the United States ,yet sort of not of it. You are away from reality as we know it most days of the week, but still can access it.

LUDDEN: Well, this community may have begun with slaves and their descendents but we think of it as quite elite now. Presidential Adviser Valerie Jarrett has a home there. Historical figures like Martin Luther King Junior, Adam Clayton Powell, Senator Edward Brook has spent time there. And Oak Bluffs is a town that they historically have settled in. How did this community evolve into an African American elite?

Ms. NELSON: The community started in an area of Oak Bluffs called the highland. Then people, as years went by, in the '30s and '40s began to buy houses down the hill and closer to the ocean. Let me say that I think the term elite is kind of problematic. The majority of the people on Martha's Vineyard work. They are teachers and lawyers and doctors and postal workers and transit workers. I think the Vineyard really, the black community there, the basis of it is still hardworking middle class, upper middle class people who wanted to have a place to take their kids outside the city in the summer.

It is a place where, as I say in my book, "Finding Martha's Vineyard," if you make it there you're welcome. It's hard to get to. It's expensive. You have to take a ferry, you have to pay (unintelligible) substantial amount to get your car over on the ferry and yourself. And everything comes over by boat or plane, so goods and services are expensive there. But it is - there's a strong middle, upper middle class black community there. And I think it's getting sort of lost in the rich and famous (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: There's an article that's come out in the New York magazine this summer that's kind of contributed to this controversy. To array, a journalist has written what - he talks about self-segregated snobs in Oak Bluffs and how there is this elite African-American community. I mean, have you read this and then how's that going over?

Ms. NELSON: I thought the article was dishonest. I think he's career building. He didn't come to the venue to report the piece. And my understanding is that in the piece, visitors Martha's Vineyard one - that's what I think.

LUDDEN: So he doesn't get it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: Absolutely not. You know, I think that there was early on a sense of people coming to the Vineyard. I know my parents wanted us grow up - we grew up in New York, me and my three siblings - wanted us to grow up around other kids like us, middle class black kids with parents who were professionals. People went to the Vineyard not to be the only one. You went because you grew - you were with other kids like you, when so much of the year our parents worked in places, where they were the only one. And we went to school or lived in communities, where we were the only one in terms of African-Americans or one of very few.

Let me say that that I think that's really changing and has changed in the past decade. There are fewer and fewer, only people who exist as only one. And I think that's a great thing.

LUDDEN: Only ones meaning they're the only African-American in the room, in the boardroom, in the…

Ms. NELSON: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: (Unintelligible)

Ms. NELSON: That is changing. Let me say that it is still, though, I think the motivation for people going there remain the same. It's beautiful. It's small enough that you can get to know the whole island and do whatever you want, but large enough that you can hide out. It's an incredibly relaxing place, which I'm sure is why the Obamas want to go there.

It doesn't take translation or transition to enjoy Martha's Vineyard. The ferry ride, the plane ride, no matter how you get there, the transit over the Atlantic to this physical place is almost like dermabrasion for the soul. And you lay your burdens down. And when you step off the ferry or off the plane, you're already relaxed.

LUDDEN: The African-American community on the Vineyard is really concentrated around this town of Oak Bluffs. The Obamas are not staying there. They're over on the other end. How's that going over in the community?

Ms. NELSON: I think people are fine with it. We would have loved it, those of us who live in - have homes in Oak Bluffs, if he had stayed there. But it's a hard place to protect. This is a president of the United States. He's renting a home in an estate, in a place where you have no reason to turn down that road unless you are going to where he's staying.

LUDDEN: Are people hoping for maybe a visit, an ice cream shop in Oak Bluffs?

Ms. NELSON: Let me - I have friends who had me die laughing. They told me how they're on cell phone alert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NELSON: They have a cell phone tree going. If anyone spots the Obamas at the Flying Horses Carousel or getting an ice cream or shopping at C'Est La Vie or going to Cousin Rose Gallery, they will start a tree of calling one another and converge on that place, cameras at the ready.

LUDDEN: Look out security detail.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: It's going to be crowded. Jill Nelson is the author of the book "Finding Martha's Vineyard: African-Americans At Home On An Island." She's also the author of the new novel, "Let's Get It On," set on Martha's Vineyard. And she joined us by phone from New York. Jill, thank you so much.

Ms. NELSON: Jennifer, thank you very much.

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