Continuing the Tradition: African-Americans on Martha's Vineyard

Spending their summers on Martha's Vineyard, Stick Fly's LeVay family shares in the long tradition of Ethel Waters, Martin Luther King, Jr., Spike Lee, President Barack Obama, and thousands of other middle and upper-class African-Americans who have found a unique community on the secluded island.

Martha's Vineyard was settled in the 1600s and the first African-Americans were a small community, primarily made up of slaves and indentured servants. Their percentage on the island increased in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as free African-Americans and fugitive slaves sought refuge there, often working in the fishing and whaling industries, with at least one captaining his own ship.

In the mid-19th century, tourists, both black and white, flocked to the island for the Methodist and Baptist revival camp meetings. As their tents were replaced with permanent houses, the surrounding area developed into a resort community, and African-Americans began to build their own neighborhood in the town of Oak Bluffs. In 1912, Charles Shearer opened the first inn that catered to African-Americans. Over the years, Shearer Cottage has hosted a number of prominent African-American guests and is still in operation today, run by Shearer's descendents.

 

Spurred by the economic prosperity that followed World War II, African-Americans flocked to Oak Bluffs to buy and rent summer homes. In 1947, Ebony Magazine wrote:

    [The] most exclusive Negro summer colony in the country is at quaint historical Oak Bluffs on Marthaís Vineyard . . . Between negro and white residents, a quiet competition has developed in the improvement of homes. Negroes know their property is being watched by white neighbors. The result is that the Negro summer colony on Oak Bluffs is as modern and inviting as any middle class summer resort in the country.

The surge in vacationers also brought African-Americans who came to not to play, but to work — as nannies, drivers, and cooks. Soon, this group formed their own subset of the community and started an organization of domestic workers, the Open Door Club. The African-American elite who summer on the Vineyard, as well as increased references in popular culture, such as the 1994 film The Inkwell, have increased the islandís prominence and popularity. As the African-American community has grown, it has expanded beyond Oak Bluffs. When President Obama visited in August 2009, he stayed in Chilmark; Stick Fly's LeVay house is in Edgartown. Property has become more exclusive as demand has increased. Well-educated vacationers who are often leaders in their fields are able to relax in the company of their peers and shake off the pressure of representing their race in the predominantly white circles in which they typically move. In her book Finding Martha's Vineyard: African Americans At Home On An Island, Jill Nelson explains, "There was no need to be the exemplary Negro here, or to show white people that we were as good as or better than they were, to conduct ourselves as ambassadors for integration and racial harmony."

In setting Stick Fly on Martha's Vineyard, playwright Lydia R. Diamond places the LeVay family in a community of their peers — a place where the family's true dynamics come out and call into question their, and our, perceptions of race and class.

— Anne G. Morgan


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