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Postcard from Oak Bluffs

4 minute read
Tim Rogers

From the Kennedys to the Clintons to the unfortunate shark victims of Jaws, Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the Massachusetts coast, has long conjured visions of well-heeled, sunburned Caucasians swarming its beaches and boardwalks in Top-Siders and pastel shorts. Yet when President Barack Obama and his family descend on this dune-swept summer playground the last week of August, they’ll also find an island of rich diversity and harmonious race relations.

“Martha’s Vineyard is the most integrated community I have ever experienced,” says Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. The island’s minority population isn’t huge (of its 65,000 summer residents, only about 3,000 are black), but it is extraordinarily well integrated. The Vineyard has long been the summer home of black luminaries including Gates, Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (who honeymooned here in 1934). “That is why I like it here,” Gates told TIME after returning from his White House beer summit with Obama and Sergeant James Crowley, the Cambridge, Mass., police officer whose altercation with Gates sparked a summer’s worth of agitated headlines. “To me, it’s racial heaven.”

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African Americans have been coming to Martha’s Vineyard since the 18th century, according to historian and resident Robert Hayden; many current black residents can trace their homes back for generations. While the first African slaves arrived on the island in the 1700s, freed blacks came to work in the service industry after the Civil War, and later they came as entrepreneurs. Eventually they were absorbed into an emerging community of African-American professionals, many of whom summer in picturesque Oak Bluffs, an oceanfront town of quaint gingerbread homes. “They were not segregated in the island community, as blacks were by law in the Jim Crow South or by custom and tradition in the North,” Hayden explains, thanks to the parallel development of black and white communities on the island and the tolerant attitudes of its early Quaker and Methodist residents.

Gates attributes the island’s racial accord to the fact that Martha’s Vineyard is “one of the oldest, if not the oldest, places in America where African Americans can own beachfront property.” Residents also never got too hung up on the issue of racially integrated beaches, which elsewhere had offended the propriety of some whites.

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Obama, however, probably won’t be going bare-chested again on the beaches of Oak Bluffs, where he’s stayed in the past. Instead, this summer, at the behest of the Secret Service, the First Family will stay at a secluded estate in Chilmark that rents for up to $50,000 a week — which unmistakably qualifies it as part of the élite summer crowd. No one in Oak Bluffs seems offended. “This is a very special place for all of us, and we are just thrilled he is coming,” says Hayden.

Business owners are also excited. Nancy Gardella, executive director of Martha’s Vineyard’s Chamber of Commerce, remembers how former President Bill Clinton’s summers on the island gave a “tremendous boost” to the local economy and helped “turn the tide” on the island’s real estate market in the early 1990s. She hopes Obama will be a regular visitor “for the next seven years.”

Vendors across the island are already pushing a variety of Obama souvenirs in anticipation. T shirts that play on the iconic Shepard Fairey poster of Obama read RELAX instead of HOPE; others say I VACATIONED WITH OBAMA ON MARTHA’S VINEYARD. Sharky’s, a Mexican restaurant in Oak Bluffs, is offering “Obamaritas” and “Barack O. Tacos.” Even the Buddhist-themed gift store Glimpse of Tibet is peddling notebooks featuring a picture of Obama with the Dalai Lama.

For some, however, the President’s visit would better serve Vineyarders if timed during the off-season. “August is already crazy here,” notes a full-time resident and business owner. “Why can’t he come in February, when the island’s economy really needs the help?”

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