martha's vineyard

The Migrant Vine Reaches Martha’s Vineyard!

As we see the unprecedented number of new arrivals entering our city seeking asylum and a better life for themselves and their families, many of us may be reminded of our own roots. These are also times when people like me think about our history and the seeds our ancestors planted in the soils of America. Piggybacking off my previous posts on the transporting of migrants to Washington, DC, New York City, and Chicago, I thought things were beginning to be like old news, but there always seems to be something new. Media reports indicated that Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida – you guessed it – without prior notice, paid for two planes of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

Just off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, lies Martha’s Vineyard – an island of pristine beaches and cottages, made up of six small distinct towns: Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven, West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. However, just recently, migrants were dropped off and reportedly welcomed by the residents. Let me stop here and take a step back.

I knew that members of the Black elite vacationed or lived there. However, the Vineyard – home to roughly 17,000 year-round residents – got me to wondering about how or if Black people were welcomed there in the past? Did they receive the same kind of warmth or hospitality? Let me preface with the arrival of the migrants.

Migrants Arrive in Martha’s Vineyard

After the unexpected arrival of nearly 50 migrants flown on September 17, 2022  into Martha’s Vineyard, local organizations and community members have been providing around-the-clock support. Many local and neighboring community members have reached out to help. Residents across Martha’s Vineyard were scrambling to care for the Venezuelan immigrants who, caught in the political fight over immigration and the crisis at the border, arrived on two separate planes originating in San Antonio, Texas. Most spoke little to no English, and many were said to be confused as to why they were dropped off there without warning. They were told that they would have jobs and housing.

As word spread on Martha’s Vineyard about the unannounced migrants, residents sprang into action to make them feel at home. High School AP Spanish students were used to help translate. Restaurants supplied food. Volunteers with Community Services set up cots and tables with food while others worked together to ensure asylum-seekers arriving also got access to health care and immigration legal services. 

According to reports, the residents of Martha’s Vineyard, welcomed the migrants with open arms. Yes, that’s nice, but again, was there a similar welcoming for people of color who frequent there or live in places like Oaks Bluff?

CBS Boston reported that after landing, the group wandered about three and a half miles from the airport into town. Can you image if they were a group of Black people wandering around the neighborhood? For hundreds of years, Martha’s Vineyard suffered from the soul-crushing effects of its own whiteness and lacked diversity. Up until that Wednesday morning that island was 89% white, monochromatic and utterly homogenous.

Let’s be real, the transporting of migrants isn’t new; it’s history repeating itself. The recent transfer of migrants resembles the “Reverse Freedom Rides” of the 60s, but that’s another story in and of itself that I’ll share as a follow up to this post! Stay tuned!

And I digress. Still, I wonder if there was a welcoming of Black people by Martha’s Vineyard residents? As always, history tells the story.

A Walk Down Martha’s Vineyard History Lane

What do you really know about Martha’s Vineyard? Perhaps somethings, maybe nothing. Well, guess what? Blacks have their footprints all over it and have been part of Martha’s Vineyard history since before the American Revolution.

At least five generations of Black creative and professional classes have spent their summers on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a place that was originally inhabited by the Wampanoag people, European and Native American people, until enslaved West Africans arrived in the 1600s via “free transportation.”

As early as 1703, records show their work as seamen, preachers, wise women and even sea captains. Their experience embraced all aspects of island life. On their days off, the women would come together in the enclave of Oak Bluffs, where some families eventually bought property. Some Black people refer to Martha’s Vineyard as a place where you didn’t feel threatened by the outer world. It served as one of the safer places for free Black people to find their fortunes in a rapidly changing society.

Around 1912, Charles Shearer, a son of a slave and her 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 people 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. It became a place where Blacks could go, not be questioned, and be authentically themselves outside of their primary homes.

However, the same cannot be said for the rest of the island. A history of segregation and classism was prevalent throughout Martha’s Vineyard. Blacks historically resided on the north side of the island in Oak Bluffs, while whites settled on the east side of the island in Edgartown. Although Martha’s Vineyard was part of the underground railroad and known as a safe and welcoming community for Blacks, they didn’t feel entirely welcome in other beach enclaves.

Through the first half of the 20th century, segregationists masquerading as public officials across the country drew literal lines in the sand, parceling less desirable beaches to people of color; shunning Black children from public pools; shuttering amusement parks to anyone but those with fair skin. Postal worker Victor H. Green penned “The Negro Motorist Green-Book” to guide African American travelers to safe, hospitable places. For Black people in America, neither rest nor relaxation would come easily.

Though segregated, discrimination on the island was not outwardly displayed. Any racism on Martha’s Vineyard took place behind closed doors. Racism wasn’t out front. People regulated it through the codicils on their homes. This is no surprise. Still wondering if there was a welcoming of Black people by Martha’s Vineyard residents? As always, history tells the story.

The Growing Vine

For over a century, Martha’s Vineyard – nicknamed “The Black Hamptons” – has been a haven for the Black community, Black heritage, and Black excellence. Black families found a beautiful, welcoming, and diverse community filled with Black culture. There are very few places in the country where Black families vacation with each other and where Blacks aren’t in the minority.

The island has also become a symbol of Black wealth, given its long history of welcoming communities of color. In a country partly defined by its history of systemic racism and economic inequality, Martha’s Vineyard offers a different picture of what Black life can look like in America.

The history of Black wealth in this country is fraught with racism, violence, and disenfranchisement. But the Vineyard offers a different picture; one of affluence, family, community, and long-standing traditions. The communities of color grow more diverse every year, but the promise of a safe refuge never goes away. Nowadays, things are more integrated, but these spaces and traditions remain strongly associated with the history of the Vineyard as a haven for Black families.

My questions were answered with no surprises!

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